fbpx Why are British factories turning away business? - Make it British

Why are British factories turning away business?

We look at why UK manufacturers might be saying ‘no’ to potential orders

British bag factory

British bag factory

This week I had an email from a lady who was having trouble getting her new handbag range made in the UK. She had approached a small manufacturing unit and asked them to make some samples for her and had been told by the owner that she would be better off getting her products made in China. I was sorry to hear that her first attempt to support British manufacturing had not met with a positive outcome, but I was not surprised that she had come across this reaction.

Firstly, the type of bag that she was looking to make was quite a complex one that would involve many processes and prove labour intensive to make, and secondly she wanted to make the bags from synthetic leather, which generally commands a lower retail price than its real leather counterpart. By making this type of bag in the UK the cost of labour makes up a much larger percentage of the overall cost of the bag, making the product vastly more expensive than producing it in the Far East, where labour costs are much lower.

The trick is, if you are going to use a British factory to manufacture your goods you need to play to their strengths, a factor  that was discussed by Adam Atkinson of leathergoods brand Cherchbi when we interviewed him recently. Operating at the quality, top-end of the market is something that many British manufacturers across all sectors now do in order to set them apart from overseas competition. Hence, most UK bag factories now specialise in high-end leather production to differentiate themselves.

READ:  Top 40 British-made Knitwear Brands


But why would a British factory turn a customer away just because she could get the product made cheaper overseas? Surely they are all crying out for work?
The reality is it’s far from that simple. Firstly, British factories are now being approached by designers and retailers all the time to sample products for them. All of them start out with the best intentions of wanting to support local manufacturing, only to find that the resulting cost prices are much higher than they could ever have anticipated. Rather than listening to advice and amending the products that they make to play to the suppliers strengths, they write off British factories as too expensive and take their production offshore, leaving the factory owner out of pocket.

Sampling is a very expensive process for a factory, using up time and labour that could more productively be used elsewhere, and too many of them have had their fingers burnt in the past by making loads of samples that never go into production. Nowadays, if they get the slightest indication that the sampling will not lead to a confirmed order then they will turn down the business. I know of factories that are charging four figure sums up front to produce samples in order to work out if designers are genuinely committed to them.


Another issue that British factories now have is finding enough skilled workers to cope with the increase in demand for British manufacturing. Many that were laid off during the mass exodus to China a few years ago have either taken up other work or retired, and training up new staff takes time and is costly. They are also nervous of taking on additional labour costs, unsure of what the future may hold.

READ:  Why every manufacturer should be on Instagram

At the moment there just aren’t enough British factories compared to the amount of designers and retailers that want to use them, so manufacturers can pick and choose who they want to work with. It is a myth that British factories are all sitting there waiting for business these days – so if you are thinking of getting your products made in Britain, do your research first and make sure that your chosen manufacturer knows you are committed.

If you are a designer looking for a British factory to work with then visit our Find a Factory page.

You may also want to read an earlier article on How to Sample with a British Clothing Manufacturer

Looking for UK manufacturers?

Grab a copy of our UK Manufacturer & Supplier Guide
Updated for 2019, the guide contains the details of hundreds of hand-picked UK manufacturers and suppliers.


  1. Lizzy on February 17, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    What an interesting article. I make personalised gifts and, a couple of years ago, I thought I’d do a very small range of childrenswear to run alongside it. I wanted to purchase a small quantity of quality t-shirts made in a British factory (as I don’t want to spend time sewing my own !). Just ordinary t-shirts in plain colours, that I could then embroider and appliqué. It’s so easy to buy imported, plain t-shirts, but I really didn’t think I’d find it quite so hard to find any made in UK.

    I decided to get some advice from some factories to see if any produce ready-to-sell t-shirts, as I was prepared to be flexible over colours. The only reply I had was from a manufacturer who told me that nobody would want to talk to me, as I wanted such a low run. How right he was. It wasnt so much the fact it isn’t viable for the factories to produce low runs of t-shirts or that they don’t have stock to sell, but that they didn’t acknowledge my emails. Your article has really explained things to me and I’m glad I found it – thank you.

    As for my t-shirt idea ? Well, I do have to use some imported fabrics, but I wasnt prepared to use anything as complete as an imported t-shirt. So, I’m sticking to gifts and home accessories for now.

    • Kate Hills on February 17, 2013 at 9:02 pm

      Hi Lizzy
      As you say, it should be so easy to buy British made T-shirts ready to print or embroider, but it’s not.
      I’m someone would clean up if they did it

      • John Robertson at Veganline.com on April 15, 2013 at 6:49 pm

        There is no trade directory for shoes (that I sell) or anything else, so most enquiries go to the wrong factories. Meanwhile, factory owners have to do all the jobs at once; they don’t have the luxury of colleagues to write government tenders, fix human resouces, do sales, or fix the hole in the roof. They survive by sticking to some niche market that knows them and spending nothing and no time on anything else. So anyone who wants a T shirt has a tough time.

        I googled “leicestershire lingerie”, “leicestershire hosiery” and such to find a few T shirt manufacturers. Their niche markets are women from manufacturing towns who like british products and tend to buy thermals. Maybe with a bit of femenine lace on them. Manchester Hosiery makes a few; a firm called LUX LUX has a video of themselves making more. The same machines could make lads’ T shirts given a firm order to justify the set-up cost and a good-looking request to do business.

        Mine was “what is your minimum order for a variation in a standard design, paid just before delivery?”. Answer “What is the variation?” – result!

        Other people on this forum might have better chat-up lines.

    • Rose pearce on November 4, 2016 at 8:05 pm

      I have just read your response. We are a small business looking for small to medium runs of ‘bulk work’.
      We are an Essex based company and do alterations and bespoke work. We have expanded to include small runs.

      If you are still looking to do small numbers of tshirts, please contact us.

      5 Beehive Lane Works
      Great Baddow
      CM2 9 JY

  2. Caroline Southcombe on April 30, 2013 at 8:36 am

    Sampling is a thorny issue. It is very easy for people to approach us asking for samples. If we didn’t charge for them then we could potentially be spending huge amounts of valuable time making samples to satisfy a vanity project that will never actually get off the ground = a waste of our time and money.

    Most small independent British manufacturers do not have ‘Sampling Departments’, as John says, we are doing everything from fixing holes in roofs to travelling overseas to meet potential clients to sorting out staff issues.

  3. carl bird on November 3, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    I work for a British bag manufacturer (I would not be surprised if we were the factory in question) and receive a number of these enquiries every week. Any reluctance to progress these enquiries is purely due to the fact they are often not suited to UK manufacture. The most common stumbling block being the buyer is unrealistic about the increase in cost for low volume bespoke manufacturing in the UK over mass produced Far East imported items. The second most common issue is the lack of choice in the supply chain. Without the regular demand there is a lack of stock in the UK of materials and components for manufacturers to tap into. We are often faced with importing these from the Far East – negating at least one of our best assets (short lead times) or we can choose to air freight the required components driving the price higher still. Sales to fashion or retail makes up a small percentage of UK bag manufacturers turnover and although well equipped factories with skilled workforces exist until there is an adequate selection of UK stockists of materials and trimmings to support them in this market sadly the majority of these enquiries are not feasible. An excellent article highlighting basic yet widely missed points for would be designers thinking of approaching manufacturers with their designs.

    • Kate Hills on November 3, 2013 at 10:38 pm

      Hi Carl
      Thanks for your great comments. You are very right to raise the issue of lack of raw material and componentry availability in this country. Maybe with increased demand for production in the UK someone will consider bringing back some of the raw material production too. You never know!

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

UK Manufacturers List

Looking For A Manufacturer?
The Make it British UK Manufacturer & Supplier Guide contains the contact details of hundreds of hand-picked UK manufacturers and suppliers.

Join Our Newsletter

Follow Us