Textile innovators are no dummies

Next time you buy a cheap T-shirt, spare a thought not just for the low-paid worker who produced it in Malaysia or India, but for the long-lost golden age of the UK rag trade.

Next time you buy a £3 T-shirt from Tesco or Asda, spare a thought not just for the low-paid worker who produced it in Malaysia or India, but for the long-lost golden age of the UK rag trade.

The textiles industry was one of the cornerstones of our industrial revolution but, like many other industries, it has dwindled in the face of ferocious competition from emerging economies.

Indeed, the prognosis for textiles is eerily reminiscent of that offered for many engineering sectors — we have to kiss goodbye to the production, but let’s hope we can hold on to the design work.

In the case of the clothing business, you would assume that means encouraging the international high-fashion jet-set to relocate to the UK but, as this issue’s cover feature shows, there may be something more exciting to it than that.

Technology could be about to revolutionise the textiles industry in a way that flaring a leg or adding an extra pocket never could.

The convergence of advanced materials, electronics and sensors has opened up research into a new generation of clothing that combines form and function.

It is early days for the fledgling smart textiles industry, but it is already clear how a future market could pan out.

On the one hand will be a range of opportunities in the consumer market symbolised by the ubiquitous iPod. Don’t want to rummage in your pocket to change the tune on your MP3 player? No problem, the control device sewn into your jacket pocket will take care of it.

All very useful but hardly the stuff to revolutionise an entire industry.

More interesting by far is what could be described as the high end of the emerging smart textiles industry. This is where the integration of technology and fabric can bring tangible benefits in areas such as medical monitoring, sports or specialist work clothing.

The scope for genuine innovation is enormous, and it is here that the clothing business, and the textile industry in general, could see itself transformed from a commodity to an added-value sector, and one where the added value comes from more than just the name on the label.

As one industry observer interviewed for our feature noted, these emerging technologies could allow established economies to build new textile sectors that may not replace the vanished mass production of old, but could certainly soften the blow of its loss.

As our commentator makes clear, this will require radical thinking by one of the world’s most conservative industries, and a willingness by technical innovators to engage with the textiles sector.

If both of these things happen, we could witness that happiest of events — the birth of a whole new industry.

Andrew Lee, editor