John Spencer Textiles in Burnley prove that some traditional industries are still thriving
PUBLISHED: 00:00 17 June 2013 | UPDATED: 15:49 21 October 2015
Â© Emma Lee 2012
We are told Britain's days as a manufacuturing nation are dead and buried. Roger Borrell went to Burnley to prove them wrong
If you thought the Lancashire textile industry was as obsolete as a busted bobbin, David Collinge can weave a tale of style, success and innovation that will make you change your mind. If you’re passionate about upmarket interiors, take a look at the material
adorning your classy three piece suite or those ever-so-tasteful curtains in the living room. There’s a good chance they were made by David’s company in Burnley.
Behind a small but imposing stone façade by the historic Weavers’ Triangle, they produce some of the nation’s cool, classic and timeless fabrics – the latest chapter in a family business that has been on the go since 1860 when his great grandfather, John Spencer, first set up shop.
Since then, it has been a roller-coaster of boom and bust. In its heyday, the company employed 650 men and women. Today, that’s down to a mere 35 but David’s business is making bigger profits than any time in the last three decades while helping to keep Britain’s textile industry alive.
John Spencer Textiles may be small but its reputation is big. And much of that success is based on a material as mundane as ticking, the fabric that covered granny’s feather down mattress.
David started working there when he was 21, preferring to keep the family firm alive rather than continue his career as a press photographer. He learned the business from the shop floor before becoming the managing director.
His first customer was a flamboyant character called Ian Mankin, a clothes designer who made leather jackets and sold them from his Carnaby Street shop to the likes of Michael Caine, The Beatles and Ronald Reagan.
In the 80s, Mankin moved into interior design, selling up-market natural woven fabrics. David explains that Mankin had the knack of spotting an everyday material that could be adapted to create something fresh and trendsetting.
‘For instance, he took muslin used in cheese production and draped it over four poster beds,’ David says. But he became particularly well known for using ticking, that distinctive blue striped material made in Burnley by John Spencer Textiles.
Many of his materials were imported but he forged a partnership with David and they started designing and weaving an exclusive range of fashionable stripes and checks.
When Mankin retired they took on his side of the business and kept the name above the door of their interior design shop in Fulham. The Mankin range has an international reputation that stretches to the Far East and the US, where it is loved for its classic English style and quality. It is also appreciated at home by companies such as John Lewis and top-of-the-range furniture makers as well as 400 different interior design businesses across the UK.
But that’s only part of the story. David brings out a box of oddments which reveal the mind-boggling range of objects created with fabric woven here.
To name but a few – there are fabrics for posh frocks, cotton coated with cellulose used to repair the bodywork of vintage Bentleys, fabrics for the wings of old Tiger Moth biplanes, rubberised material for Mackintoshes, composites for ship rudder bearings, parts for JCBs using Teflon and Kevlar in protective clothing.
They even make the parachutes for ejector seats. In fact, almost every fighter jet in service uses Burnley produced parachute material because it doesn’t melt at supersonic speeds, handy if you are hurtling through the void at G-force.
‘As weavers, we are a bit like farmers. If you carry on in a purely traditional role, you will die because you can’t compete with cheaper overseas businesses. You have to go in other directions and become very specialised and technical, working in niche areas.’
David’s company does not make cheap material but it scores over low price imports in several ways. There are no importers, exporters and distributors to bump up the costs and they keep a huge volume of fabrics in stock so if a client wants relatively small quantities in a short space of time, they can provide it. The company was also the first UK weaver to be given organic status and now the internet is also providing them with a growing market with around 200,000 swatches sent out each year.
Today’s business, with it’s computer-controlled looms, is unrecognisible from the firm started in 1860. ‘When times were good, they were very good, but there were many trials and tribulations too, particularly involving industrial relations,’ says David.
In the 1920s the mill owners tried to impose wage cuts, sparking strikes. David’s great grandfather was one of the main protagonists and when his grandparents announced plans to marry in Burnley the police told them they couldn’t guarantee their safety. They hurriedly switched the service to Cliviger.
The world has changed here too. David, a father of three, says: ‘We are a very family oriented today. We are more profitable than at any time in the last 30 years and our workforce shares in that.’
It says something about Joe McBride’s grit and determination that he managed to keep Lancashire Textiles afloat in spite of one of his High Street customers going bust within his first 12 months of trading.
It left him with a £180,000 headache, but they pulled through and today the Burnley business has a multi-million pound turnover. It’s hardly surprising that he does little buiness with the High Street, concentrating efforts on mail order and the growing web-based market.
The historic Cameron Mill employs 32 people and produces 12,000 pillows a week and 5,000 duvets and mattress toppers as well as retailing a huge range of accessories. In common with most manufacturers, the woven textiles come in from abroad but the processing, filling and sewing all takes place in the mill. ‘We don’t believe that the cheapest is the best. We use the Rolls Royce of filling materials,’ says Joe, a managing director who spends more time on the shop floor than in the office. ‘Some will use regenerated materials made from melted plastic cups and bottles but we use 100 per cent cotton and virgin polyester. Our pillows don’t go flat after you’ve used them for a week. They are made to last’
Some of their processes are innovative, especially the materials used for filling, and many products are aimed at the orthopaedic and allergy-free markets. The core of the business involves two large carding machines which process fibres. They were bought, taken to pieces, reconditioned and put back together on the site by Joe, who has a background in engineering and management.
‘There is more manufacturing in this country than people realise,’ he says. ‘You could say there’s a new industrial revolution.’