Questions over trade weave through Britain's wool revival
Bradford, England — On a clear autumn day, a drive along the southeastern approach road to Bradford gives the best panoramic view of Britain's most famous wool city. Whereas Paris has the Eiffel Tower as a landmark and Florence, Italy, has the Duomo, Bradford has Lister's Hill chimney. When Samuel Cunliffe Lister built his wool-combing mill in 1838 at Manningham, just north of Bradford's center, it was said that the chimney was big enough to ``drive a coach and horses around it.'' Nowadays, such grandiose monuments have no place in an industry that barely recovered from near-destruction in the late 1970s.
From more than 3,000 mills and 180,000 blue-collar workers 30 years ago, Britain's wool-textile industry has just over 200 mills and 30,000 workers. ``What we have left is very tough, very aggressive, and it knows what it's doing,'' says Geoffrey Richardson, director of Britain's National Wool Textile Export Corporation.
Eager to shed its century-old image of patriarchs dealing in ``muck and brass,'' the industry has discovered public relations and promotes itself as modern, high-tech, and successful. A revival over the last three years as a result of new investment and better management means that wool textiles, manufactured mainly in Yorkshire and along the Scottish borders, are expected to earn 625 million ($1 billion) in exports this year, making them Britain's sixth-largest foreign-exchange earner.
``No Yorkshireman, no Scot, will go down the tubes if he doesn't want to,'' explained Mr. Richardson, whose office overlooks Bradford's Wool Exchange. It's now closed, but 40 years ago the world's wool price was set by a handshake or over a game of dominoes in a caf'e round the corner.
Cheap third-world imports, higher raw material prices, and measures such as the textile bill in the United States mean this revival may not last. Textile imports to Britain are up 13 percent over last year's levels. The knitting yarn sector is reeling from what it terms ``dumped'' acrylic fiber from Turkey. ``The problem is that the Brits play cricket and the others don't,'' Richardson says.
Fine wool exports such as worsted, for which Bradford is famous, were threatened by last year's near-doubling of Australian fine merino wool prices, worsted's essential raw material. ``Prices are now falling back in Australia, mainly because manufacturers substituted coarser wool,'' said Robert Wilson, who becomes managing director of the British Wool Marketing Board in December.
The board is the Britain's sole raw-material supplier. It buys its wool from some 90,000 small British sheep farmers, and resells it at public auctions. Mr. Wilson expects the supply to increase about 7 percent this year to about 110 million pounds. This is mainly because sheep farming remains profitable, while lamb is not in surplus in the European Community.
The current high level of the volatile New Zealand dollar also helps. Interest rates in New Zealand have topped 26 percent, increasing that country's wool prices and hurting exports. The coarse wool produced in Britain is directly comparable to New Zealand's. ``There has been a move out of New Zealand from a cost point of view toward British wool,'' says Peter Lees, of the Bradford-based London Wool Brokers.
This also makes Wilson very happy, since his wool board plans to market the coarser British wool more as a fashion fabric. The British wool is used chiefly as a carpet yarn and only a little in heavy tweeds. ``Fashions for 1989 are beginning to move back toward the tweedier country look,'' Wilson says.
The board has its headquarters in a converted mill at Clayton, just outside Bradford's center, where it boasts a little zoo. Here, a range of British sheep are displayed systematically, from the coarsest to the finest hair.
But plans to increase exports of the tweedy ``Old Fogey Look'' to its armies of fans in the US could be thwarted by enactment of the US Textile Bill, which rewould strict import growth to 1 percent of 1987 levels. Under the bill, the US president would have flexibility to decide on relative levels of imports from various nations. British manufacturers say they have been lobbying furiously to gain that extra inch which the Far East may lose.
``It [the bill] will bring repercussions, because the EC will not stand still and we could get a trade war,'' says Richardson.
His efforts seem to have had little effect in Washington. ``We are already in a trade war,'' said an aide to Sen. Ernest Hollings (D) of South Carolina, who is sponsoring the textile bill.
Such developments leave Britain's wool textile exporters in the curious position of fighting free trade from the east with one hand and protectionism from the West with another, and failing at both.
The city of Bradford has already relegated the sandblasted dinosaurs that are its old wool mills into tourist attractions or homes for new upmarket boutiques. Mail-order and light engineering have replaced wool as the main employers in the city. What is left of the wool industry is hostage to its inability to attract qualified young people for management training. ``If this situation continues, there could be no industry left in 15 years,'' says Helen Maskill of the Confederation of British Wool Textiles.
Employers are loath to admit that pay could be the problem. The basic pay in a combing plant is 90 ($150) weekly and 130 with bonuses and overtime.
According to figures from the Trades Union Congress, Britain's main labor grouping, average weekly wages in the manufacturing and services sector are 199