In 1971 Leicester was seen as one of the richest cities in the world, a hub of manufacturing for textiles and engineering. A common term at the time was ‘Leicester clothes the world.’ Over 82,000 people were employed in manufacturing in Leicester in 1970. The arrival of Asian immigrants in the 70’s and 80’s and their investment in these industries both as workers and owners meant that these industries continued to survive for many years after they had closed in other cities. I, the founder of More-Me, was in Leicester at that time and was a part of this journey. My parents owned a factory that made jeans and t-shirts in the 80’s and 90s.
I remember the city as one that buzzed with industry and community. It meant great things for my parents and also the families that they employed. The level of female employment was high in comparison to the national average so I was lucky enough to grow up alongside powerful women who had their own sources of income and were seen as economic agents in the home.
With both parents working in factories, factories recognised the role of the family. It was common for women and men to go home at lunch and have lunch with their children who came home from school and come back to work for the afternoon. Sometimes I would join them lunch whilst my parents used lunchtime to organise the factory for the afternoon shift. That was what community was in the textile industry, where work and family merged together. But then in the 1990’s this began to decline. For reasons we are familiar with. Global competition and cheap labour abroad. I have seen the value of clothes become equated to how cheaply and quickly we can get them. I saw how this broke my dads heart. Letting people go for people whom he had worked with for 20+ years.
Even now if I walk in Evington I bump into families that worked in that factory. We never felt like they worked for us. They worked with us. It was one of the machinists who taught me how to tie a sari not my mum. Another who made the best sweetcorn curry and would bring a little in for me when I was 7 because she knew I loved it. I ate lunch with their children. I spoke to them about my dreams as a child whilst they attached arms onto t-shirts at their machines and smiled smiles of encouragement. I partied during their children’s weddings and helped clean up afterwards when all the guests had gone.
Currently, approximately 25,000 people are employed by this industry and the number is declining. There are people in Leicester who have had a craft passed onto them through the generations who cannot support themselves with that craft. And that breaks my heart. I have had the privilege of witnessing the community a textile industry can build. The heartbreak of watching it decline and now the passion to rebuild it. I hope you will help.