Our textile industry needs help, before it unravels

31st July 2015 at 01:00

I used to work with a foreign journalist who, every time she crossed the border just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed, immediately adjusted her wardrobe to ensure that she was wearing at least an item or two made of finest Scottish tweed.

To her, as to people all over the world, textiles made in Scotland are not only quintessentially Scottish, they are also items of great quality and iconic design. When they think of the country, they think of Nessie and bagpipes - and also of wool and cashmere and tweed.

Because of this, the industry is one of the success stories of the Scottish economy - indeed, experts told TESS that hard-pressed manufacturers were currently struggling to meet demand. And listening to representatives from the industry at last month's A Stitch in Time conference at Dumfries House (see pages 16-18), with the smell of wool and fabric in the air, it was easy to get caught up in the magic of this centuries-old trade.

But the reason why these people had come together with teachers, pupils, lecturers - and even royalty - at the event in Ayrshire last month was one of serious concern to all attendees. Finding talented young people willing to come into the industry is, everyone agrees, a huge challenge.

At a time when a significant number of young people are classed as Neet (not in education, employment or training), you could be forgiven for thinking that an industry of worldwide repute with thousands of employees and job opportunities would be a gift.

But persuading young people that their future lies in the Scottish textile sector has been difficult. Rumours of dead-end careers in a dying industry, measly wages and remote locations seem to be deterring many of them.

Events like A Stitch in Time will go some way to rectifying this by showing the industry in its best light. But much more help will be required for it to turn the tide.

For a number of reasons, including exposure in the media through television successes such as The Great British Sewing Bee, crafts like sewing and knitting have become fashionable again. Teachers report that children enjoy and work hard at them.

But it remains to be seen whether this will translate into more young people wanting to work in the Scottish textile industry. A concerted effort is what is needed. Undoubtedly, careers advice is key: pupils need to be informed about the sector and the opportunities it offers. They also, ideally, need to meet people already working in it.

Textile manufacturers from across Scotland have recognised their own role in this. No one can give an insight into their working life as vividly as they can. But teachers and parents need to play their part, too. If they keep an open mind and recognise the economic realities of Scotland in 2015, perhaps young people can be persuaded that the Scottish textile industry is by no means a thing of the past.


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