At its peak in the early 19th century the British cotton industry alone was producing an astonishing eight billion yards of cloth. That’s 4.5 million miles of cloth, or enough to circle the earth a whopping 182 times! Two world wars later, many garment factories and tanneries had been transformed to manufacture and process essentials for war, and with the emergence of competitive global markets providing 24 hour production of textiles, the UK garment industry went from boom to bust and was left down at heal. 

The rise of low-cost manufacturing abroad has continued to threaten employment in the UK garment industry, with jobs falling from 800,000 in 1980 to 100,000 in 2013. Meanwhile the fashion industry still brings £26 billion to our economy generating a growing risk of disconnection between the clothes we wear and the journey they make before reaching our wardrobes.

The past few years have shown a thread of hope in reviving a generation of lost sewing skills in the UK. Sales of sewing machines and haberdashery kits are on the up and we’re seeing more and more people getting crafty with their garments, from the revival of the old ‘Make, Do and Mend’ to upcycling and refashioning.

It’s not surprising trends are changing when the reality of manufacturing vast quantities of clothing abroad has come to painful light – in 2013 1,133 people were killed and over 2,500 were injured when the Rana Plaza factory complex collapsed in Bangladesh. This disaster has acted as a catalyst for a growing movement seeking to be reconnected with how and where their clothes are made. On the 24th April as part of Fashion Revolution, people will be asking ‘Who made my clothes?’, be curious, find out and do something. But things shouldn’t stop there.

Reigniting the rag trade in East London

On the 9-10th May we’re launching #RefashionEast to celebrate the heritage of the UK’s fashion industry, starting with East London. A collection of workshops, human libraries and walking tours will reconnect people with the roots of the rag trade, how clothes used to me made and will give people the chance to learn new sewing skills.

Share your stories and tricks of the trade

It’s time to reignite the UK rag trade in a meaningful way and we want to go beyond East London. Help us discover tricks of the old trade from across the UK and share your fashion skill tips. What do you know about the history of the fashion industry in your town? Whether it’s from Manchester’s ‘Cottonopolis’ to a tannery in Devon, we want to hear from you.

Keep the trades alive. Share your stories and fashion tips below.


By Heather

Photography copyright ©: Bishopsgate Institute. Sourced: Postcards from Petticote Lane.