Why Luton's hat trade was losing out

Hat trade need for adaptation

[Beds & Herts Saturday Telegraph: July 12th, 1919]

Probably two-thirds of the total of ladies' headwear this autumn will be made in the London and Manchester areas. It could – or to say the least, a considerable portion of it could - have been made in Luton.

Will the manufacturers and workers remedy this trend of things? This, we are told, is a very serious matter for Luton. The comments produced below are not ours; the indicate the sort of reception some of our Luton manufacturers have been receiving from the wholesale houses.

What is the remedy? One of our staff has been prosecuting inquiries and he writes as follows:

The machinists of Luton – more particularly lady machinists – are now experiencing, to an extent never before experienced, a very serious drop in work and increasing dull time.

This position appears to be accentuated by the fact that fashion has, for the moment, developed on what might be termed alien – that is, outside – labour.

A most startling fact, which is well known to many Luton manufacturers and is causing them considerable anxiety, since the extent of future developments along this line cannot be foreshadowed, is that at least one-third of the total production of ladies' hats this autumn will undoubtedly be supplied by labour in London and the Manchester district.

The class of work to which this applies is what is known in the trade as “millinery or hand-made goods,” ie ladies' cloth caps, tam o'shanters etc.

It is well known that the Luton girls cannot be excelled, either from the point of view of quickness or quality of work turned out, once they take up any particular line, but there is, and always has been, an element of conservatism amongst them (which to an extent is also common among the manufacturers themselves) and this spirit is having, and has had, a tendency to stifle initiative and strangle adaptability.

To some go-ahead manufacturers this spirit is very annoying, since it results in the loss on their part of large orders, and to the girls themselves much lucrative employment in the dull seasons and which would obviate the necessity of their drawing small wages during those periods – and, possibly, the encroachment upon the girls' hard-earned savings carefully reserved during the busy time.

The position is very serious so far as this class of work is concerned, and it will become even more serious unless there is adaptability to the new order of things on the part of the machinists or initiative on the part of manufacturers.

If only the machinists will adapt themselves to the new conditions, a prominent manufacturer emphasises, they will have work all the year round, and the high wages which at present only appertain during the busy season will become the average for the whole year.

There are a few firms in the town who are endeavouring to cope with this new situation, but there are so few hands who have shown willingness, and partly because of the spirit of conservatism already mentioned, that when the manufacturers endeavour to submit the work to the London houses with a view to securing orders, they find themselves unable to compete with the manufacturers from other centres.

Orders depend, in this very material world, more largely upon prices, frequently, than quality, and the question of price is almost entirely dependent upon quantity – in other words, the power of production.

If the Luton girls would only take up the work to the extent already adopted by workers in London, Leeds and Manchester, the question of price would automatically right itself and the world class all-round excellence of the work of the Luton hands would emphatically settle the question of quality. London and Continental buyers would then give preference to the Luton manufactured goods, since they would not only price favourably, but quality distinctly advantageous.

One or two of the manufacturers who have endeavoured to compete with outside manufacturers in the new direction were met, even this week, with this lamentable exclamation: “Luton, why you're out of it,” and then followed the story of the success of the manufacturers in London and elsewhere in this particular line.

It created among the Luton men a feeling of resentment, almost anger, because they knew that Luton could compete in any market in the world if the workers would only adapt themselves to changing conditions. It touched their business dignity and pride of the town with which they are associated to be told they “were out of it”.

It might be argued that fashion is continually changing and adaptability would always be necessary. That's just it! But it is the argument born of the spirit of conservatism. Why do some businessmen make headway against others' stagnation? Simply because they have seized, understood and worked upon the fundamental principle of successful business – that of adapting themselves to the ever-changing conditions.

The taking up of this new class of work would involved very little outlay upon the part of the manufacturers in providing the necessary machines, and, as regards the machinists themselves, we are assured that in two or three weeks any intelligent machinist who showed anything like willingness in the matter of adaptability would be in a position to push ahead with the work and earn very good wages.