What is Textiles? 

An industry as old as people themselves

The textiles industry is one of the oldest in the world in one form or another. Indeed textiles is as old as people themselves as we have always sought textiles to meet our basic human need for clothing and protection. 

The word textiles is from the Latin word ‘texere’, which means 'to weave’, but nowadays the word refers to a wide range of flexible materials made up of fibres, yarns and fabrics. It also refers to a range of products, from clothing through to textiles used in high tech performance situations such as road building, building construction and the production of composite materials for car bodies. 

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Perceptions of the industry

The historical importance of the textiles industry means that it has been highly valued, including within the historically male dominated world of business. Indeed weaving was the first industry to be fully mechanised and it was the catalyst to the Industrial Revolution. 

The UK has more than 79,000 textiles businesses, employing over 340,000 people. The gross value added for the sector in the UK is estimated at over £11.5 billion which makes up 3% of the UK economy (source http://goo.gl/vJrOY1). It is the 15th largest textiles manufacturer in the world (source http://goo.gl/5JqFWr)

Ring spinning

Textiles can often be pigeon holed as being about ‘fashion’, ‘clothing’, and ‘sewing’. Whilst these are an important part of textiles they do not fully represent the industry. Take a look at the careers section to find out about the wider range of textiles sectors and linked careers. 

Bullet proof vest

Another perception about the industry is that it is dying but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Like any other industry, it is changing and evolving, often at a very fast pace, but this doesn’t mean it is dying. It is still one of the biggest employers across the world, with new areas of the industry constantly being developed. 

The industry has also found it hard to shake off the ‘sweatshop’ label. Whilst poor working conditions and low pay does still exist in the industry, it is wrong to think this is the only industry where these practices still exist. It is also wrong to assume that this applies to all textiles manufacturers and many factories are modern, high tech with good working practices. 


Changing the perceptions about what textiles is has proven a slow process. New developments in textiles materials and technologies is, however, going some way towards this. Indeed the UK is a major player in the technical textiles market, and this is a major growth area for UK industry. 

Take a look at this interview about the growth of the technical textiles industry in the Northwest of the UK

The Alliance Report 2015

The Alliance Report is the most recent report into the textiles industry. It’s important as it shows the industry is growing and that it plays an important role in our economy. It also shows how many jobs there are in the industry and the need for skilled people. 


  • The industry is worth £11bn annually and is 15th largest in the world
  • 15,000 jobs in UK textile manufacturing could be created by 2020
  • Significant capability still exists in traditional sectors e.g. spinning, knitting, weaving, making up as well as the growth of new areas in technical textiles, composites
  • Key clusters of production: Greater Manchester, Lancashire, West Yorkshire, East Midlands, Scotland
  • Rationale for sourcing from abroad has weakened because: consumers want shorter lead times, growth in demand for UK homemade products, recognition that some cost benefits of off shore production can be offset by other cost reductions from closer manufacturing, increasing energy & labour costs in other countries
  • River Island, ASOS and John Lewis are 3 major brands that are investing more in on shore production & others are following
  • There is a growth in niche markets around technical textiles, with lots of companies diversifying into this area. Estimates suggest this area contributes £1.5-£2bn a year to the UK economy.
  • The traditional 2 season cycle is less dominant as a business model with demand for on trend merchandise being driven by consumers with a ‘buy now/wear now’ mentality. Consumers are also increasing spending at high and low price points with reduction in mid tier spending. To remain competitive retailers therefore have to support in season trends and be able to respond quickly.
  • Online retailers often add new products each week which makes short lead times the key to success. It is easier to meet this type of demand using on shore manufacturing. 
  • Increase in manufacturing technology and automation bringing cost benefits, which for some products could make manufacturing on shore more viable. 
  • The market has moved towards having just the right stock to meet consumer demands as and when it changes which reduces the costs of over stocking. Manufacturing things globally makes this harder to do and the rising costs of transport also add to the overall costs.
  • UK manufacturing is proving more popular where short lead times are important, where manufacturers have significant input into designs, where tight controls on quality control are needed, and where provenance for a product is key (i.e. the ‘Made in the UK’ branding).

Issues Raised

  • An ageing workforce which is resulting in skills shortages
  • Large number of smaller businesses which means there are less ‘prime’ manufacturers who can afford to invest in research, innovation and upskilling
  • High land and energy costs in the UK impacts on manufacturing here as energy costs, in particular, are higher than most countries the UK competes against
  • There is concern that there is an inaccurate negative perception of the industry especially by young people. In particular the ‘sweat shop’ image is dominant when this is not generally accurate in modern manufacturing. 
  • There's a lack of understanding of the breadth of careers in the UK textiles industry.
  • The report considers a rebranding of the industry and its opportunities to be essential

Visit the New Economy website to download the full document

Click here to download the above as a one page summary of The Alliance Report 

Textiles in schools

D&T textiles is one of the material areas that comes under the heading of Design and Technology in schools. It consists of curriculum learning related to anything to do with textiles materials and techniques. It has a bias towards the technological side of textiles and in particular has strong links to the textiles industry. It has strong links to art textiles (and they are often the same thing) but differs in that the focus is on functional products designed for real people with a real purpose.

Students who study D&T textiles learn a wide range of textiles skills, some very traditional, and others linked to new technology using exciting machines and computer linked systems. They learn about and use a wide range of textiles materials, including modern and smart materials that have been engineered to have high tech properties. They also design and make a wide range of products which might include high tech performance wear, footwear, fashion items, interior products or pretty much any other product that is made out of textiles materials. Students also learn about the modern textiles industry keeping up to date with high tech developments in materials and machinery. 

Students use a range of different equipment in D&T textiles. As well as the traditional sewing machine they use overlockers, a traditional industrial machine, and computerised embroidery machines, as well as high tech machines such as laser cutters and 3D printers. Where possible they use equipment and machines similar to or the same as those used in industry as well as learning about those that are difficult to access in a school situation. They also regularly use a range of computer software for designing.

At keystage 3 and 4 (age 11-16) D&T textiles is closely linked to the other materials areas in D&T (such as the use of woods, metals, plastics). Students can specialise in textiles as a material but they will also learn about the cross over between material areas, about designing and manufacturing generally, as well as about the wide range of technological developments in our ever complex world. From 2017 this is tested at GCSE by a single GCSE qualification known as Design and Technology or via a range of vocational routes. At post 16 (age 16-18) students can choose to focus on textiles in more depth if they wish, for example through an A level Fashion and Textiles qualification, a vocational qualification, or they can maintain their broader focus on materials via a Product Design qualification. All of these GCSE and A level routes (and vocational equivalents) enable students to study textiles, and other areas of design, at a higher level. 

Boys do textiles too!

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The modern textiles curriculum is just as relevant to boys as it is to girls. The scientific and technical content of the modern textiles curriculum has encouraged more boys to study textiles and, whilst numbers lag behind girls, it’s a growing trend. D&T material areas, including textiles, draw on knowledge from across the curriculum, especially maths and science, requiring pupils to apply knowledge in practical ways. Students use maths to draft patterns to fit body shapes and consider the science behind engineered fabrics before using them. This couldn’t be further away from the pink fluffy hearts image of textiles which is why many boys (and girls) see textiles as the material of the future with a broad range of exciting career opportunities.  

The future is textiles

Despite some of the negative perceptions that still exist about textiles it is no exaggeration to stay that the modern textiles industry is at the forefront of a new industrial revolution. The development of engineered fabrics stronger than traditional metals, the integration of micro electronics into fabrics, along with developments in ‘intelligent’ fabrics are just some of the exciting developments in textiles. These high tech developments mean that the traditional boundaries as to what a textiles materials is and does are being challenged. It is genuinely no exaggeration to say that the future will rely heavily on the exciting developments within the textiles industry. 

Click here to find out why Professor Dias, from Nottingham Trent University, describes textiles as being at the forefront of the second industrial revolution

How textiles revolutionised human technology - article about the importance of textiles in the past and the future

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