A History of Fabric in Manchester - Fabric Digital
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A History of Fabric in Manchester

20th Mar // 2017

Although our name Fabric is relatively new, it reflects a heritage doing back decades. Its origins come from the textile industry in which Manchester played a key role at the turn of the last century. Fabric reflects our parent company's history in the industry.

The group was started as an exporter of fabric from the UK to India and Africa in 1945. At that time, the cotton mills of Lancashire were thriving and Manchester was at the heart of it. Aptly known as Indo African Exports Ltd, the company was founded by the father of the current Fabric Directors, Babubhai Kapadia, who arrived in war torn London just after VE Day at the age of 26. His connections in India and Africa meant that the cotton fabrics he sourced had a ready made market. These connections were strengthened by a stint living in Nigeria, but Mr Kapadia returned to the UK in 1952 where the decided Manchester would be a better base than London due to its proximity to the mills and processing factories. The first office in Manchester was on the corner of Portland Street and Oxford Street.

At that time, the trade to Africa with its bold, bright prints continued to go from strength to strength. The full cycle of production meant that raw cotton was imported into the UK, spun into yarn, woven into fabric, dyed and then exported. The old colonial links meant that the products commanded a premium.

However over the next few years the industry started changing. Instead of raw cotton being imported, the processing started happening overseas. Initially in the Far East and then in the Asian sub continent manufacturers began producing fabric - at much cheaper prices. With his well established contacts, Mr Kapadia saw the opportunity to start importing fabrics which continued to be dyed and finished around Lancashire.

The business developed and in the 1970s Andrew Mercer Ltd was formed by Mukesh Kapadia to begin importing cotton yarn from India and synthetic yarn from China. In the 1980s the group grew as it acquired companies that converted fabrics, first M Lodge and Sons a shirting fabric supplier which it bought out of receivership and R & J Partington (1920) Limited, a merchant converter. Both companies had their own premises on Sackville Street in Manchester and a “flying freehold” - the first floor of a mill in Failsworth.

The textile industry in Manchester at that time began seeing a trend companies moving out of the city and into the old mills that used to house machinery but now increasingly used just for storage. Our group followed this trend and the offices were moved to Failsworth Mill from where the companies continued to operate for another 30 years.

The 1980s also saw the City of London prosper with deregulation in the financial markets and increased share ownership. In 1988, the family business received an offer to buy the companies from West Trust PLC which was quoted on the London Stock Exchange. At that time, Ajay Kapadia joined the business and it was decided to retain Andrew Mercer Ltd in the family but sell the rest of the group. Babubhai Kapadia joined the board of West Trust and things went well for a few years until they decided to exit the textile sector in favour of the food industry. The family decided to buy a couple of other yarn companies, Associated Spinners and Dura Mill from West Trust and then we bought the rest of the group back - now under the umbrella of Andrew Mercer Limited – in 1992.

The 1990s saw a growth in the knitted fabric trade, mainly around Leicester, when fabric was produced from yarn, dyed and finished and made up into garments with a very quick lead time to satisfy the quick moving fashion industry. After supplying yarn to manufacturers, the group expanded into knitted fabrics working closely with a manufacturer in India to get the quality right and accepted by the major UK store groups.

Dealing with the store groups also allowed us to expand into outerwear and this resulted in an opportunity to buy into an equestrian sports company, Matchmakers International Limited. The group supplied Matchmakers with waterproof jackets from China and Indonesia and was in the right place when the management were looking for an investor to help with a buyout. Babubhai Kapadia became Chairman and Mukesh and Ajay joined the board in 2000 - the year before Foot and Mouth disease had a dramatic impact on the countryside and associated industries. However the company with its well known brands, Harry Hall, Masta and Cottage Craft survived the crisis and took the opportunity to acquire a competitor, Caldene.

Matchmakers continued to perform well until the management decided they wanted to exit the business in 2013. The business was sold to a new team although the group still retain a minority interest.

The manufacturing side of the textile industry in the UK continued its slow decline during the early 2000s as cheaper imports started coming in the sector was impacted by the banking crisis in 2008. As a result of this, the business made a strategic decision to sell the mills it had acquired and to start winding down the textile business.

However, always on the lookout for new opportunities, Mukesh and Ajay came across a small web design and development agency called Athernet. Founded in 2003 by Daniel Atherton, the company had just three staff and was based in Chorley. After joining the group, Athernet moved to Central Manchester and over the next three years rebranded to Fabric and grew to employ 25 staff. We’ve downsized since then after a development team moved in house to a client, however we still have the same affinity with Manchester.

Penned by Ajay Kapadia in Fabric