Incredibly of all the millions of Tshirts that I've had a hand in printing over the years I have never seen how tshirt garments are actually made. I came into the industry at the start of fast fashion so our companies are a reflection of me - and have not understood or respected the Tshirts we sold.
Last week me, Kerry & Maeve visited English Fine Cottons with a view to co-creating a product.
English Fine Cottons is the kind of story I love - purposeful passion, respect for heritage, making a stand, and success.
Manchester and its surrounding area was instrumental in many ways during the industrial revolution, but one of its key industries was cotton spinning. This is the art of taking raw materials and creating incredible cotton that others then use to create beautiful things - cotton goods from the North of England stood for quality, craftsmanship, and respect for the materials, the industry and its legacy.
Over the years the UK industry slowly died as price became the driving factor and fast fashion and a ‘throwaway’ consumer culture took hold with imported and ever cheaper goods from the far east. As a result not just UK spinning became obsolete, but also lots of businesses from the the support structure - pattern cutters, makers, retailers - thousands of sub businesses and entrepreneurs.
There are dozens of 18th & 19th century factories in Manchester that supported this industry that have been derelict and unloved for decades as the industry faded, but nevertheless there was a respect, heritage and the last vestiges of a skill base that remained.
Making a stand
The founding team at English Fine Cottons decided to make a stand - taking a damp, derelict victorian cotton mill, investing heavily and transformed it into a working factory. They installed the most efficient, high tech milling machinery from Switzerland over 3 floors of their newly refurbed building and rekindled industry contacts, and fired up the machines....
As a result they have been able to find and work with some passionate people with the same passion, care and respect for the materials and the industry.
Even more awesome by making their stand they have enabled new businesses to start and thrive, orbiting around what they created. These businesses didn’t exist before but have been empowered to re-enter the UK garment industry - not competing on price, but standing for quality and sustainability just as the UK should take a lead on.
Organic v Sustainable
One of the questions we asked was - why do you not talk about any organic credentials?
The answer surprised us - “We aren’t organic - it’s a really only a marketing label term”. The reason? Big companies say they are organic but but will waste huge amounts of resources eg water and questionable labour practices. They don’t manage the cotton farms in the right way meaning that inefficiences and cost cutting practices are happening on the ground. Sometimes the process used to create the cotton at the volume required means that while the cotton ‘may’ be organic, the process to manage the raw material is not and can sometimes actually be toxic. Big companies buy cotton in trade bulk - which means in reality, they never really know where all their cotton came from, or if it is actually 100% organic. The bales they buy at trade are a mix of cotton from lots of different locations and even countries, with lots of different grades and consistency.
So, when processing the inconsistent raw material they are inefficient, more resources (chemicals and power) are needed and quality suffers as a result, further eroding what value being ‘organic’ actually means. Pretty soon you realise, it really is a label unless these companies can really prove it.
So - what cost for provable, sustainable materials with a focus on quality? English Fine Cottons use Supema cotton from California. What does this mean?
- Each cotton field is a perfectly flat 1 or 2 square miles, meaning the cotton grows consistently from one side of the field to the other. This reduces the need for wasting water, labour and ensures quality crops
- Pesticides are deployed, not sprayed using technology that understands each individual plants needs and uses the precise amount required which can be as little as a milliliter
- When harvesting, technology is used to pick the crop only between 10am-12pm. Any earlier and dew drops compress the crop, any later and the Californian sun dries the crop out making it brittle - both these issues affect quality and maximise the output per square metre.
- The ‘staple’ is twice as long as normal cotton, This is the length and integrity of each fibre which means the finished garment will stretch and shrink less, is more durable and will last longer.
- Each cotton bale is fully traceable from the grid reference within the individual field, the person who handled it at every stage from farm to production, down to which garment the cotton ended up in.
How old is your oldest tshirt?
I get through quite a few! My oldest is probably only 6 months...
Commercial director Tracy Hawkins spent some time with us, talking about the company and its values and showed us how long interlocked Supema cotton can last. She unveiled a tshirt her husband had made its way through his different wardrobe outfits until it was now used for gardening in. While the dye had faded, its shape was still perfect, it hadn’t shrunk, it didn’t have the ‘bobble’ effect you get on older clothes, and amazingly there were no holes or tears. It was 12 years old.
All this made me think. If we were to create our own Tshirtify tee from EFC’s cotton it would be 10x what we pay for our most basic lines. Even with the amazing job our team at Tshirtify does in keeping our faults/wastage below 1.5%, we’re still guilty of taking a blase attitude to the fact that our costs are low in reprinting our errors. How would we feel if we wasted 1.5% of a garment that was 10x our current expectation on pricing? How would we change our approach to our thinking and our production processes?
How do you begin to be able to move consumers into placing new value onto truly sustainable products? How does that effect your margins and repeat custom? What education can you give to your customers and partners? What opportunities does this present? There’s a long way to go in changing wider perceptions but it doesn’t take long to see what needs to change, and how you can begin to make your own stand.
I was so impressed with the level of different thinking, how making a stand can create so much, and how my own thinking was changed by seeing the process.
With the level of automation, accountability and efficiency we strive for at Tshirtify we’re hoping we can link our systems to English Fine Cottons and create the first Blockchain tshirt - from field to your torso, how much value would you put on knowing that?