With support from Innovate UK EDGE, an innovative fabric manufacturer found ways of weaving a way through the pandemic and expanding its business.
The Jacquard loom, which can be used to weave complex patterns, has a long connection to innovation: the programmable cards used in Jacquard machines even influenced the first modern computers in the early nineteenth century. That long association of Jacquard weaving and new thinking is now being taken forward by Stephen Walters & sons, a family-run firm that specialises in making high-end patterned textiles for fashion and home furnishings, combining artisan skills with the latest technology in creative and innovative ways.
The value of an objective perspective from Innovate UK EDGE
Since 2018, Stephen Walters and sons have been working with Innovate UK EDGE innovation and growth specialists, and especially with Richard Carey-Evans. Stephen Walters Sales Director Ceri Yates explains: ‘we recognised that we needed an external perspective, to help us think about how we could grow as a business. Richard has helped to expand our thinking, enabling us to recognise what we were missing and where our weaknesses were, and connecting us to the people who can help us.’
Through the Covid-19 pandemic especially, Richard Carey-Evans’s support was vital. Ceri Yates describes how ‘the demand for much of our Fashion business dropped significantly overnight, as people worked from home and special occasion events were cancelled. We knew that we couldn’t rely on our existing customers, and existing ways of working, to get us through the pandemic. But with Richard’s help we were able to look at our processes and streamline them. Richard also introduced us to a local supplier of cost-effective Covid tests, which meant that we could keep our manufacturing facility open, when others were closing. We were an early adopter of lateral flow testing, and that made all the difference.’
New customer acquisition for fabric manufacturer
Thinking a little differently about how Stephen Walters fabrics might be used, Richard Carey-Evans also introduced the company to a new customer, which was looking for a suitable textile for use at sea: something that could cover the seats on a boat, but which could also be inflated and used on a beach. And above all something with a pleasing tactile quality, unlike many traditional maritime fabrics, which have a plastic feel.
Another introduction has led to Stephen Walters being involved in a Knowledge Transfer Partnership project focused on innovations in dyeing, which will make the process more cost-effective and sustainable.
In all, not only did Innovate UK EDGE support help Stephen Walters to maintain its employee headcount, despite the huge negative impact of Covid, but it has even helped the company to move forward: building a strategy to target and deliver new contracts, which are helping to return the company to pre-Covid order levels, and even to create a number of new jobs.
For Ceri Yates, ‘Richard really took the time to understand our business, and he was then able to offer valuable insights on the key issues facing the company. Drawing on his impressive network to make introductions to other industry bodies has also generated significant opportunities for us, enabling us to enter new markets. And all of this was during a time of real challenge and hardship in our sector. Going through the process has given us a broader idea of what innovation is: we think more strategically about how our textiles could be used, and who we might partner with. It helps to have someone from outside to see some of these things.’