Why Are More Women Setting up Garment Factories in the UK?

Despite sewing traditionally being seen as a ‘woman’s job’ there are still few women running sewing factories in the UK. To celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th, we take a look at some of the inspiring women that are changing the face of garment manufacturing in Britain.

In the run-up to International Women’s Day I got to thinking about how many women I know who are running factories.

I know A LOT of sewing factories in the UK. But out of the 4,000+ or so in Britain, I can’t think of that many that are owned and run by women. Which is disappointing when you consider that the vast majority of workers in sewing factories are women.

While there’s sill a low rate of women in top jobs in manufacturing,  a survey carried out by Arrow Advisory shows that the tide is turning. The amount of woman on the board of FTSE 100 manufacturing companies rose to 40% in 2022 (up from 35% in 2021).

As more small businesses look to manufacture in the UK, we’re seeing more and more of them setting up their own workshops and micro-factories to produce their products. It not only cuts out the cost of a manufacturers overheads, but also makes them the master of their own destiny as well.

Something Wicked

Take for example Steff McGrath, the founder of Something Wicked, Steff makes luxury underwear in her own factory set up in a historic textile mill in Leeds. Something Wicked is run by women, made by women, for the empowerment of women. They have called a halt to the assembly line, done away with waste and stripped back to the what’s important: beautiful work, mindfully sourced materials, with every product being made to order.

“There are so many garment factories around the world that are run by men, where women (who are the ones making everything!) are exploited and underpaid. The fact that it is seen as ‘women’s work’ means that it can been undervalued, whilst men at the top are the ones that are benefitting.”

We’re proud to be an all female team as well as being made in the UK. Garment workers in the UK and overseas, tend to be mostly women. Any industry that has a predominantly female workforce tends to be undervalued. Women make good factory owners because we can relate to, appreciate, and respect the women that we hire. We can see and appreciate the value of the skills that are being used. We can ensure that garment workers are paid fairly and treated justly and not exploited.”

Emma Willis

Shirt-maker Emma Willis’s eponymous brand sells from a store on London’s Jermyn Street in London, and her factory is in an 18th Century townhouse in the centre of historic Gloucester.

“The best thing I did business wise was to open my own factory. Training young people, bringing the cutting sewing skills of experienced, exceptional crafts people of my generation into this generation and securing the quality of the clothes we make for our customers into the future.”

You can hear more about Emma and how she set up her shirt-making factory in this interview on the Make it British podcast.

Plus Samples

Nailya Belkacemi - Plus Samples

Production and pattern cutters Plus Samples are an all women run team lead by Nailya Belkacemi. Beginning life as a one-woman operation providing pattern cutting services from a small studio in Fulham the business has organically grown into a full scale operation with a dedicated creative team of machinists and pattern cutters.

Nailya has 20+ years of experience in the industry. Nailya is very much present and involved in all the daily studio activities. Her hands-on approach and decades of industry experience gained the respect of many clients.

Made by Thimble

When Helen Bristol decided to reshore the production of her innovative children’s bibs, she knew the best way to do it was to set up her own manufacturing unit.

As word spread about her manufacturing capabilities the factory grew into its own separate business, Made by Thimble. As well as manufacturing for her own brand Skibz, it also makes textile products for the giftware industry.

“Being a female factory owner certainly has its benefits. When running a textile factory you need to have a good eye for detail, whether that be the size of the stitches on a certain seam or spotting an uncut thread on a completed product and I feel as women we do this well.”

“Another useful trait is a greater understanding of childcare when it comes to employees requiring time off, as I’ve been through it myself. Plus I feel we’re better equipped to deal with any emotional issues staff may have.”

Intimate Apparel Samples

Intimate Apparel Samples is another example of a successful women led manufacturing business that grew from making for their own brand.

Maxine Wells founded Intimate Apparel Samples while creating high end collections for her own label Maxine’s of London. As the sampling and manufacturing side of her business flourished, with more orders than capacity, Maxine made the decision to focus fully on nurturing Intimate Apparel Samples and commit wholly to manufacturing. Maxine is a firm believer in small businesses supporting one another to create a better future, whilst proudly flying the ‘Made in Britain’ flag.

Maxine says, “Being a female business owner with an all female team has been super beneficial in my business. Due to our specialism being lingerie, swim and athleisure, we attract a lot of women entrepreneurs on a similar journey to us and our connection and understanding with one another is strong.”

“We are in a fortunate era to be ‘allowed’ to be unashamedly ambitious, and I am super excited for any woman on a heart led mission!

However I feel it will take several generations before we stop subconsciously judging women for not having the motherly credentials of a 50s housewife.”

“We must support women and remind them when they cannot do it all, and encourage them to ask for help.!”

Fashion Enter

“Manufacturing is so complicated, but so rewarding,” says Jenny Holloway, the owner of Fashion Enter, a social enterprise factory which manufacturers for everyone from ASOS to M&S.

“I never set out to be a factory owner when I was a senior buyer for the Arcadia Group!  However now I am in this esteemed position I would never have it any other way – every day is different, every day is challenging and actually I now wonder how I was ever an effective Senior Buyer without knowing how to construct and cost a garment.”

But Jenny says that the path to running a successful sewing factory has not been easy. “Its taken 9 years to achieve the position of where I actually feel confident in all aspects of manufacturing but I am not arrogant enough to think that I could do this job without the wonderful team of the factory manager, production manager, QCs,  machinists and pressers.”

“I do think this is where woman have an advantage of being able to multi task, are not afraid to ask for advice and guidance when its required and actually just become so darn determined to make a job work.”

That hard work and determination have certainly paid off for Jenny. Today her factory has a leading status in the new Fast Forward audit, only two companies out of 360 have this accolade with ASOS.   

I hope that going forward we will see more and more woman taking the lead like those I’ve mentioned above, and start to set up or take over the running of sewing factories in the UK. It certainly seems like the modern woman has all the right skills for the job!

Yarmouth Oilskins

Sharon Bowles - Yarmouth Oil Skins

Sharon Bowles is factory manager of Yarmouth Oilskins, a coastal workwear brand and manufacturer. She has just celebrated her 30th year with the company, having started as a machinist at 19, and now managing the whole workforce.

“As you can imagine being a teenager, Factory Manager never crossed my mind, I was never that ambitious! I started sewing at 16 on TYS training course and being this was in the 80’s I was given the job of making Shoulder Pads, and thought it would “Do” until I found my calling for I really wanted to do.

But somehow along the way I seem to have got swept up with the whole concept of how clothes were made and what machine did what etc. I then joined Yarmouth Stores and this was the biggest factory I had worked for since I started “My Career” and there were more machines to learn.”

Sharon worked her way up the ranks with 4 promotions within 12 years of starting at the bottom. Sharon now manages all the production in the factory, which has been sewing in the U.K. for 125 years. She believes more women should be in leadership positions to help provide support for other women in the industry:

“I love that we are mostly women that work here and that being of the same gender that we can also confide in each other with our “modern women’s” problems with the main topic of menopause and supporting each other through this if and when needed. I think being that they have a female manager, this helps them to come to me with problems whether work or personal.”