Enterprise & Society 4.3 (2003) 554-555
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Stanley D. Chapman. Hosiery and Knitwear: Four Centuries of Small-Scale Industry in Britain, c. 1589-2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. xxiv + 328 pp. ISBN 0-19-925567-9, $90.00.
Approximately one-half of all textiles now produced are knitted; hosiery and knitwear have become a major global industry. In addition to published research (his own and that of others), Stanley Chapman's comprehensive history employs archival sources and oral evidence to examine this development. He adopts and extends Charlotte Erickson's interpretation (presented in British Entrepreneurs, Steel, and Hosiery, 1850-1950, her 1959 classic, path-breaking study) backward to the seventeenth century and forward to the present. Novel, however, is Chapman's disaggregated quantification of output into classes of product and his delineation of the respective roles of firms, entrepreneurs, managers, and workers in that process, thus adding detail and greater precision to previous accounts.
Until the 1920s the hosiery industry "was still a pretty dull plodding affair, repressed by the stern votaries of Victorian costume design" (p. 163). Women's emancipation, increasing freedom to relax and display, and rising incomes resulted in a proliferation of products, notably stockings, undergarments, and knitted leisurewear. Nevertheless, though fashion had played an important part in determining the prosperity or depression experienced by the different branches of the industry before the 1920s, at the level of the firm the dominant concerns were technology, organization, and production rather than fashion, design, and the market. Increased industrial concentration after 1850 reflected the drive to secure economies of large-scale production and led to an oligopolistic structure of manufacturing that relied for distribution almost entirely on wholesalers, a group whose hostility toward alternative forms of distribution continued to be a drag on marketing innovation.
Changes in demand patterns saw marketing assume increased importance relative to production and led to branding and to vertical integration by merger, enabling manufacturers to incorporate retailing connections or to sell directly to retailing operations. The most important example was the first contract for stockings and socks between Corah & Son of Leicester and Marks & Spencer (M&S), the emerging cut-price, multiple retailing family firm, in 1926. Hostility toward the multiples by the wholesalers' trade association explains why this alliance remained secret for years. The connection also prompted the formulation of the Sieff brothers' policy that M&S would adopt in dealing with suppliers: to secure sufficient market [End Page 554] power over each contracting firm to allow M&S to dictate technology, production methods, and design. The goal was achieved by exercising a degree of management intervention in independently owned businesses by insistence on, and policing of, high standards for wages and working conditions—applied with a thoroughness typified by attention to the quality of the toilet facilities.
Until the 1960s, when the British lead was eroding, the success of M&S and its many manufacturing suppliers and of conglomerates (including Courtaulds and Coats Paton) involved in manufacturing and retailing combinations on the M&S model enabled the British hosiery and knitwear industry to withstand European and American competition. Rapid expansion enabled M&S to secure 30 percent of the U.K. market, growing to possibly 50 percent by 2000. This degree of market and corporate control attracted critics, but Chapman's investigation of the history of the highly secretive M&S company concludes that the financial outcomes for the manufacturing participants (around one thousand in 1970) were beneficial.
In the end, the large, centralized companies that destroyed the brands of hitherto independent companies were less successful than a few surviving independents promoting their own brands. Advanced computer-based technology introduced in the 1980s provided greater opportunities for smaller, more flexible firms to contribute to design, establishing niches in a newly emerged volume fashion market in which specialist chain stores selling popular fashion products intensified market fragmentation. M&S responded to these trends by dropping its design directives and all-encompassing M&S brand, passing design responsibility to contracting firms hitherto focused entirely on production, and simultaneously imposing more stringent financial requirements. Chapman believes that by discarding brands and squeezing profit margins the corporate giants inflicted irreparable...