A stitch in time - to save Scottish industry

31st July 2015 at 01:00
Scotland's textile business may be booming but it won't be for long if it can't attract more young talent into its ranks. ?Julia Belgutay explores the initiatives designed to sew up the sector's future

It's as Scottish as shortbread and just as popular, but the future of the country's textile industry is far from certain.

A lack of demand is not the problem. Manufacturers across the country told TESS that they were struggling to keep up with orders, and some had even had to turn down business.

The industry is facing an altogether different challenge: finding enough qualified, passionate young people to recruit. And now it is turning to the education system for help.

One big name has already heeded the sector's call. When the Prince of Wales heard of the difficulties faced by textile companies on an official visit in 2013, he established the Dumfries House Sewing Skills Steering Group. This in turn led to the launch of the Future Textiles programme, which delivers regular sewing workshops for teachers and pupils.

"I thought, being an interfering busybody, that I would try to find a way to help," Prince Charles said last month as he welcomed 500 visitors to Dumfries House for a one-day festival called A Stitch in Time.

Speaking to an audience that included school pupils, representatives of the textile industry and teachers, he pointed out that textiles made "a significant contribution to the economy", and added: "In order to safeguard this vital, and precious, part of our economy in future years we must address the endemic skills shortage that exists in many parts of the industry, and ensure that young people are aware of the wonderful and rewarding opportunities for employment and long-term career prospects."

There are plenty of vacancies to fill: according to Scottish Enterprise, the sector has about 540 companies employing some 8,400 people. It is estimated to be worth pound;835 million annually to the Scottish economy, with exports valued at more than pound;365 million. The total production value of UK textiles is worth just under pound;9 billion, and is growing.

Unpicking the problem

Another famous supporter of the scheme was also attending last month's event. Patrick Grant, a tailor on London's Savile Row who has gained popular acclaim as a judge on the BBC show The Great British Sewing Bee, told TESS that he was aware there were "not enough people coming through". Qualified machinists were especially in demand, he noted.

James Sugden, who has worked for more than 40 years in the textile industry and is now instrumental in supporting the work at Dumfries House, agrees. He said that during his time as director at cashmere company Johnstons of Elgin, turnover increased from pound;5 million to pound;50 million, and the workforce quadrupled from 200 to 800.

The industry had moved from "high volume, low quality" to higher end and smaller volumes, he explained. Although for most of his career he had been concerned about securing more orders, he said, "right now I am much more worried about whether we can deliver the orders we have".

According to Mr Sugden, the bottom line was that the industry needed "more skills and better skills".

Broken threads

The key factors deterring people from entering the sector seem to be clear. Fiona Kennedy, head of skills strategy at the Scottish Textiles Skills Partnership, said the biggest issues were "the ageing workforce" and the perception of textiles as being "a dying industry".

The partnership was set up to bridge the gap between industry and education, which Ms Kennedy said was "one of the challenges". She explained that companies were keen to invest in training, because the "business reality" of the ageing workforce could lead to shortages in the coming years.

Some 18 colleges and universities were currently delivering fashion and textiles provision, Ms Kennedy said, and most of the training with which the partnership was directly involved was around apprenticeships, where the teaching was delivered in the textile companies themselves. After all, she said, "the best skills are in the industry".

At the forefront of the fight to keep textile skills alive in Scotland is Glasgow Clyde College. Not only does it deliver the workshops at Dumfries House as part of the Future Textiles programme, it also acts as the assessor for the training offered by the Scottish Textiles Skills Partnership.

Jacqueline Farrell, head of fashion, textiles and jewellery at the college, told TESS that Glasgow Clyde ran a comprehensive fashion and textiles programme, with subject areas that included weaving, embroidery and design.

The college's offering ranges from NC-level courses, currently training a total of 390 students, to HNC-level courses and ones that allow direct progression into degree programmes. Student numbers grew significantly during the 1990s but have since plateaued. However, the courses continue to be in high demand, with around three applications for each place.

Ms Farrell acknowledged that ensuring the curriculum remained relevant to industry was a challenge, but insisted that this was a key focus of the staff. "We engage with industry at every level. Staff attend conferences, go to companies and ask them to engage. We are very proactive," she said.

Carrie Anne Devlin from Ardrossan Academy in North Ayrshire also attended A Stitch in Time with a group of pupils.

She told TESS: "The younger generation has never been introduced to the skills so they find it quite difficult. Boys might not be as interested but that is up to the teacher to change. Girls do seem to be quite interested. You need to spend a bit of time on the basics and you need to take the time to teach the hand-sewing skills."

Despite the difficulties, however, Ms Devlin said she was determined to help inspire young people.

The government is also keen to do its bit. A spokesman said the textile industry was "of great importance" and the government wanted to do "all we can to make the most of the opportunities presented. That is why we are investing more than pound;1 million to drive innovation and skills development in the textiles industry."

He added: "Heriot-Watt University is leading on our work in strengthening links between industry and academia and we are also working with the Scottish Textiles Skills Partnership to deliver a three-year skills action plan for the sector."

Seamless transition

Recent statistics indicate that this work is starting to bear fruit. According to Skills Development Scotland, the number of modern apprenticeship starts in fashion and textiles heritage has increased from 105 in 2011-12 to 209 this year. And the most recent figures from the Scottish Funding Council show that 2,346 students in colleges and 2,026 students in universities were enrolled on courses related to textiles in 2013-14.

In addition to education initiatives, other influences can also initiate change. At the A Stitch in Time event, Mr Grant told TESS that The Great British Sewing Bee, whose final earlier this year attracted 3 million viewers, had helped inspire thousands to try their hand at sewing.

Retailer Hobbycraft reportedly experienced a 75 per cent increase in the sale of sewing machines, and predicted it would sell more than 55,000 metres of fabric and 40,000 reels of cotton during the latest series of the programme.

"What we are seeing is a huge rise in interest," Mr Grant said, adding that he hoped this might translate into more people considering careers in the industry.

It seems that changing perceptions is key. Angus Nicholl, of Kirkcaldy-based weaving company Peter Greig and Co, said: "There used to be 15 mills in our area, and the only other one was shut in 2003.

"Young people seem to be saying: `Why should I train in this if it won't be around when I get there?' There are people who think that. There is a future in textiles, but we have to have a certain amount of vision. It won't just drop into our laps."

Pattern for the future?

Over the coming months, a number of workshops for teachers and pupils will take place at Dumfries House as part of the Future Textiles scheme. Funded by Creative Scotland's Cashback for Creativity, the workshops are free, and run by Glasgow Clyde College in partnership with Dumfries House, Ayrshire College and the Scottish Textiles Academic Group.

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