When Terri Whitford picked up the keys to new premises for her garment alteration business Oh-Sew-Whitty in February 2020, she did not expect a national lockdown to be called less than a week before the site officially opened.
“We’d outgrown my home in 2018 and then reached a point where we needed a space of our own,” says Terri. “After coming to realise a few months away from work could be good for me and my family, suddenly I was accepting a delivery of 1000 metres of scrubs materials to my house wanting to help however I could.”
Oh-Sew-Whitty has expanded rapidly since Terri ventured into her own business four years ago, making and altering curtains by hand at home for local customers while her little boy was still in a bouncer. Within six weeks her order book was full for the next six months, indicating the scale of the demand for local craftsmanship. Spotting an opportunity, she diversified into producing garments for local businesses and was soon busy enough to take on an extra pair of hands.
Eventually, after delivering an order of 80 airline unforms from her spare bedroom, Terri signed a contract to use the space and equipment at the Textile Centre of Excellence in Huddersfield, giving her the freedom to expand further. Although Oh-Sew-Whitty was due to leave Textile House when its new premises were fully equipped, that was where Terri found herself again to make personal protective equipment (PPE) at the start of the pandemic.
Supporting health and social care providers with PPE kept the company busy at a difficult time for the whole industry, but it also led to some exciting new relationships. Oh-Sew-Whitty attracted the attention of outerwear giant Mackintosh, who went on to place an order last summer that required far greater production capacity.
“We had a sudden choice to make,” says Terri. “Take the order and see how it goes, or turn it down and miss the opportunity. So I picked up the phone and spent the weekend filling the factory.”
From contacting the right mechanical and technical support to sourcing machinery and equipment, Oh-Sew-Whitty managed to set up its new premises in just five days.
By employing freelancers who had lost other work during the pandemic, the company turned around the Mackintosh order and was able to open its doors to a range of new brands.
Terri has received enquiries for virtually every type of order, including launching new collections for several startup brands. More established businesses have also been in touch: BBCo Headwear has placed orders, making Oh-Sew-Whitty the only manufacturer in the UK producing caps. For her, this demonstrates the appetite for local garment manufacturing.
“Making in Yorkshire can be an important part of the story for brands and we’ve had enquiries from startups based nearby as well as further afield,” Terri explains. “We’re very busy for at least the next few months, and it’s fantastic to see some signs of recovery in the fashion industry.”
With so much demand for high-quality garment manufacturing that leverages shorter, more resilient UK supply chains, Oh-Sew-Whitty has huge potential to continue growing with the support of skilled makers.
Finding the right individuals has proven challenging, while Terri is continually balancing the risk of taking on new staff with the potential benefits of increasing capacity to meet current demand.
On-the-job training is an important part of the puzzle.
Terri graduated with a degree in Fashion Design, Manufacturing and Marketing from the University of Huddersfield in 2012, but says her eye for quality and detail improved hugely during her time at Montgomery, a sister company to Samuel Brothers which specializes in royal and military uniforms.
To keep these skills alive, Oh-Sew-Whitty is keen to look into apprenticeships and initiatives around widening access to training to help develop the next generation of UK garment manufacturers.
“Part of the challenge is changing people’s perceptions of garment manufacturing and attracting them into the industry. We hope to show the world that this is an exciting, creative industry with lots of opportunities for people who want to learn specialist skills,” Terri adds.
“Making clothes in Yorkshire is very much alive!”