‘British manufacturing is down but not out’ says Leonard Hawkins, in this interview about his sustainable fabric brand Bysshe
Can you tell me a bit more about Bysshe, its history and the meaning behind the name?
Bysshe was conceived in 2013 in response to the uncertainty of globalised markets, international divisions of labour and production, and the exploitation of people and the environment that can occur in the textile industry. We strive to produce organic, sustainable natural fibre fabrics that a) can be grown, processed and woven within Europe, and, b) that we can ensure accountability at every level of production.
There are many excellent fabrics produced around the world and we do not seek to discredit those employed in Asia, or elsewhere, who work in this global industry. However, we want more of a relationship with those we work with, and, for our production network to be in as small a geographical region as possible.
The name Bysshe (pronounced bish) is a variant of the word ‘bush’ and is an old English name rarely found in use today. It is also the middle name of the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
You weave your fabrics in Lancashire, the home of cotton weaving in the UK, but how many mills do you think are left there now?
We do not know exactly how many mills are operating today but only a few remain out of the hundreds that used to exist across 35 towns or so. The town of Nelson once had 22, of which, only two have survived. Other towns have similar stories.
For sure, British manufacturing is down but it is not out. In fact, we believe it is due a resurgence. Those who have survived have persevered and, while they may not produce fabrics as abundantly as other regions of the world, the quality of their work ensures that they remain global competitors.
It was not too difficult for us to find superb mills to work with – there are just far fewer of them now. Some say the UK is in danger of losing its capacity and knowledge to manufacture fabrics, but, although it is early days, we expect to see positive developments for UK manufacturing.
Who buys your fabrics and what end use are they for?
So far we have mostly sold to independent fashion designers but people have also used our fabrics for blinds, curtains, cushions and bags. Many of our customers make a conscious decision to source from us because they like and support our ethos. Despite this, we do not aim to be, solely, a niche British, environmentally conscious company – we want the quality of our fabrics to speak for themselves. We have had customers who had no idea how or where we work. Part of the fun of our project is trying to push these ideas of sustainability and local production networks into the mainstream.
Where do you source your raw materials from?
Our hemp, currently used as weft yarn, comes from Cornwall and Romania. The Cornish yarn was made from hemp grown in France by an international group of hemp activists and enthusiasts, partly as a feasibility study and partly as a craft endeavour.
For more refined fabrics we use hemp yarns from Romania. Throughout Europe there are pockets that never stopped working with hemp, and already we have met some great people doing fantastic work. We are hoping that one day we will be able to spin hemp yarns in the UK, as the climate can easily support hemp production, but there is much development of the infrastructure to be done yet.
For the warp yarns we use organic cotton. With cotton it is important to ensure the yarns are certified organic and that there is proof of origin, so we work with our mill to help source from within Europe.
What have you found to be the greatest challenges of manufacturing in the UK?
We feel fortunate that so many aspects of our project have fallen into place without too much stress – the biggest challenges are more fundamental. The textile industry has spent so long enjoying the benefits of unequal trade relations that it is difficult for some people to imagine an industry here being competitive beyond the luxury market. Sometimes we face skepticism from those who do not see any way of making ours a viable business given the higher costs involved. Bysshe Partnership has to balance business sense with our sustainability concerns to demonstrate that manufacturing in the UK is ethical and commercially sustainable.