The great British knicker experiment: Doom-mongers say British workers are too lazy to compete with the Far East. A new Channel 4 venture proves them wrong…
They told us it couldn’t be done. ‘It won’t work,’ said one major retailer.
‘The skills aren’t here any more,’ said another.
After many hours of phone calls – all of them met with sympathy – we came to the depressing conclusion that we were wasting our time. Had we failed before we’d even begun
I had agreed to join retail analyst Mary Portas for an unusual and brave experiment: a Channel 4 television series that aims to take on foreign manufacturers in the cut-throat world of basic clothing.
We would be making women’s knickers in Britain, to be sold at everyday prices.
Kinky Knickers are surprisingly complicated to manufacture. Each pair is made of two different types of stretch lace – one for the main body of the underwear and one for the trim – plus a small amount of cotton
British manufacturing, we have been told, is mostly dead and buried. Certainly, goods for the mass market, the products that we all buy, seem exclusively foreign made: pottery or textiles, shoes or electronics. Once we made these things ourselves.
Now we’re exporting whole factories from Britain to China and Malaysia so that others can make them for us.
But is it true that we can’t compete, that our wages are too high and our workforce is hopeless
I thought shops would jump at the chance to sell a truly British product at an affordable price – particularly with the benefit of hours of television exposure on a prime television channel.
How wrong I was. When I telephoned major chains to find out whether, in principle, they would agree to sell the British pants, they told me I was dreaming – that I wouldn’t be able even to get them made here. As far as they were concerned, British mass-production was a thing of the past, and wasn’t coming back.
Fortunately, we refused to take the big shops’ word for it, and set about finding someone with the know-how, plus the equipment and the space to prove them wrong. I also needed a workforce to stitch the knickers together.
The dream was to find a British clothing firm that had sent the manufacturing of its products overseas, but still had the necessary equipment.
So, my production team scoured existing British textiles companies – and the response told a sorry tale. Our calls went unanswered, some phone lines were dead. Other companies told us their closure was a matter of days away or that they were going into administration.
A machinist making the 10 Kinky Knickers. All the trainees Headen & Quarmby have taken on say that, above anything else, the job has given them a new sense of self-worth
Finding a suitable factory was all the more difficult because so much of the machinery we needed had been sent abroad. But eventually we found the family firm of Headen & Quarmby in Middleton, on the outskirts of Manchester.
For 70 years the company had made nightwear, employing 60 women machinists. To remain competitive, though, it had sent the production overseas.
Now, reduced to operating from a small part of a huge factory that used to produce between 25,000 and 30,000 garments a week, the firm survives on design and distribution.
When Mary and I visited the disused sewing room, it was like walking back in time. All the old sewing machines were there, with their covers still on, lined up in rows on the vast factory floor. It was perfect.
Headen & Quarmby, then, had the expertise, equipment and space, but could we find the workforce And could we make knickers that were truly British
Naturally, some of the materials that go into making a pair of knickers can never be home grown.
Cotton has to be imported. But beyond the raw materials, we were determined that everything that went into putting them together would be done here.
Mary, with her business know-how, was to take charge of the packaging, branding and marketing of the underwear and, most importantly, trying to convince retailers to stock it.
She already knew it would be tough going, having tried to produce as much of her own clothing range here as possible. Even she managed only 20 per cent.
Lace, the main component, was an immediate priority. The French manage to use French lace in French knickers, yet even in Nottingham, once known as the lace capital of the world, the industry has almost been destroyed.
Today only a few lacemakers survive. David Moore, who runs Headen & Quarmby, believed we would be forced to import ‘stretch lace’.
Andrew is proud to have his first job. 200 young people applied for just eight jobs at Headen & Quarmby on nine-month contracts and offering the minimum wage
After much searching, however, we discovered Jim Stacey, who lives on a houseboat on the River Trent.
At the space Jim sublets from a riverside factory, he told us he can only survive as a lace-maker by restricting his overheads to a minimum, which is where the houseboat comes in. The less personal expenditure he has, the more chance his business has of surviving.
It was recruiting staff to make the knickers that proved the biggest and most emotional revelation of the project.
In Middleton, we put up posters advertising the jobs, and put notices in JobCentres and newspapers.
We had room for only eight people on nine-month contracts at that stage, and were offering no more than the minimum wage.
Yet when the day for the interviews arrived, we found a queue of more than 200 young people lining up outside the old, disused red-brick Warwick Mill. We were astounded.
Yes, a small number of those who turned up weren’t really interested in the work; they were just there to show that they had attended an interview to satisfy the authorities. But the overwhelming majority were young people in desperate need of work – any work.
A machine fitted with the lace
They were under no illusions. We had made it clear that, although the process was being filmed for a television programme, this was no X Factor pathway to stardom and riches.
Each of the eight trainees would have to work a 40-hour week, starting at 8am every morning, and they would have to be prepared to do overtime. They might even be obliged to work evenings and weekends. And the work would be against the clock.
To meet our target cost price of 4 for each pair of knickers, each pair would have to take no more than 12 minutes to make. The aim is to produce 1,000 pairs a week.
Some of the stories that came out of the interviews were heart-breaking.
One applicant, 20-year-old Andrew from Rochdale, told us he had left school without any qualifications, had never had a job and had never seen his parents work. Yet, with a fiancee and a baby son, he was desperate to be a role model for his child.
Julie, 22, from Bury, told us that she comes from a family of machinists – her mother and grandmother worked in textiles, which was the foundation of many towns around Manchester. She is skilled at sewing, despite having received no formal training. But the industry barely exists in the area now.
In Middleton alone, there were once 11 thriving textile factories.
Now Headen & Quarmby is the only one left, and even that is working at a much-reduced capacity. These days, Middleton is one of the most deprived areas of the country.
Thirty-five-year-old Lesley told us how she was also from a family of textile factory workers – her mother was a machinist and her father used to hand-spin cotton.
She said she had been unemployed for the past 18 months, and that when her parents were both made redundant, it ripped her family apart.
Again and again we heard similar stories about parents and grandparents who once walked straight into jobs in the textiles industry. Those jobs paid for homes, they paid for cars and they paid for raising families. The workers didn’t earn much, but they earned enough.
Moreover, those jobs gave a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging.
All the trainees we have taken on say that, above anything else, the job has given them a new sense of self-worth.
One even says that he didn’t even feel like a person before, but he does now.
Mary Portas has insisted on a streak of patriotism: the British origin of the product is made as clear as possible
We also noticed a mixture of young men and women applying for the posts, whereas in the past machinist vacancies were usually filled by women. But the young male applicants had no concerns about doing ‘women’s work’. They just wanted a job. And they are just as accomplished as the women, despite never having been near a sewing machine before.
Lynn Birkbeck, who oversees production at our factory and whose parents founded Headen & Quarmby in 1935, has re-employed one of her former staff members, 57-year-old Myra Parnell, to train and supervise the new staff.
Myra has worked in textiles all her life: she left school at 15 on a Friday and started at a mill on a Monday.
We told the trainees that, if they stayed the course, they would emerge with a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) in Fashion and Textiles by the end of the nine months.
Most of them have been wonderful although the work requires discipline and concentration. It is a painstaking job and there must be no distractions, so Mary imposed strict rules from the outset – no swearing, no mobile phones and no chewing gum, for example.
The initial investment, from Channel 4, is enough to pay the staff for nine months and pick up the cost of the manufacture of the first 5,000 pairs. Beyond that, everything is down to the retailers and, of course, consumers to help Headen & Quarmby.
If the orders come in, and Headen & Quarmby can continue to make the line profitable, then production could continue. Mary estimates that to keep production running, the team needs orders of at least 100,000 pairs a year.
The trainees are being paid 6.08 an hour, yet that is roughly six times more than an employee doing a similar job in China would receive. While there are costs incurred by transporting products to Britain, knickers from the Far East can sell here for as little as 50p per pair.
There is no way our model could compete with that – but we also didn’t want to. Mary was particularly keen that we create a product that would last, that women would enjoy wearing and that would make them feel good about themselves. But we wouldn’t be selling it at the 15 or 20 or more that those kinds of knickers can cost.
Mary settled on a price of 10, which she felt would be affordable for a good-quality, British-made product. But for retailers to sell a pair of knickers at this price, they would have to take a little less profit than they usually do.
To help persuade them that it’s worth their while, Mary has created a striking brand called Kinky Knickers, presented with beautiful packaging and cheeky artwork that harks back to seaside-postcard humour.
Customers are told that the product is ‘best worn when the sun’s up but the blinds are down. You’re on top of the day (or under the milkman!) and you’re feeling just a little bit naughty underneath’.
Kinky Knickers is presented with beautiful packaging and cheeky artwork
Mary has also insisted on a streak of patriotism: the British origin of the product is made as clear as possible.
Each pair of knickers is ‘Made lovingly in Middleton by local lads & lasses from the finest British lace, Kinky Knickers are turning the lights back on for Great British manufacturing. So fluff up your skirts & give yourselves a pat on the bottom for backing Britain’.
The label giving washing instructions contains a little joke: ‘Use colour-safe detergent (or give it to your mother – she’ll know what to do!)’
And there is even a message hidden in the knickers themselves – the name of one of the trainees who worked on that particular pair. They have certainly impressed the retailers. The same ones who had told us several months ago that this project was bound to fail.
To date we have managed to secure orders of more than 30,000 knickers from some major brands, including Marks & Spencer, Boots, John Lewis, Liberty, Selfridges, House of Fraser and Asos, the internet retailer.
We’ve already had to hire extra staff to cope with the demand, those who just missed out in the original interviews.And when Liberty in London agreed to launch the product with an order of 600 pairs ahead of Valentine’s Day, we knew the business was really under way.
And that, of course, is when reality struck. It all should have worked fine. The apprentices were trained, all the machinery was working, and Jim Stacey was able to produce the lace we needed.
But when the factory took delivery of our first consignment, Lynn couldn’t believe what she was seeing. A manufacturing fault meant the lace had been overstretched and wasn’t springy enough: any knickers we made with it would fall down!
It was an emergency; the run-up to February 14 is when sales of knickers peak. Days – even hours – counted. In the end, Lynn and Mary had to travel to a dyeing factory in Leicester to meet Jim, where they saw his new consignment of properly stretchy lace being dipped in the various colours of the range.
We could finally go ahead with mass production.
Our hope is that the factory will be able to carry on. Who knows, it might even play a small part in proving something to shoppers and retailers alike: that with determination, investment, community spirit – and a willingness to take just a little less profit – the mass manufacturing that we thought Britain has lost for ever can be brought back to life.
Colette Foster is co-executive producer of Mary’s Bottom Line. The series, made by Remarkable Television, begins on Channel 4 on March 15 at 9pm.
Knickers in a flash: 12 minutes
They will be produced in their thousands, but the Kinky Knickers made by Headen & Quarmby are surprisingly complicated to manufacture.
Each pair is made of two different types of stretch lace – one for the main body of the underwear and one for the trim – plus a small amount of cotton.
Each pair of knickers is worked on by every trainee at some point
After the material is delivered to the firm’s factory, a professional cutter prepares the shapes that the trainees will stitch together. They use four different types of industrial sewing machine.
First, the edges of the cotton gusset are neatened. This is kept separate from the rest of the material while two pieces of the main-body lace are sewn together in a seam at the front.
Next, the lace trim is attached to the top of the knickers and to the legs. Attention then turns to the back, and the material is joined together in a second seam.
Finally, the gusset is sewn in, and the back seam is secured.
Each pair of knickers is worked on by every trainee at some point.
The entire process must take no more than 12 minutes from start to finish.