On the 1st January 2021, the UK left the European Union with a trade deal and, over the coming months and years, lots of things are going to change. Some things will become more interesting, and others will become more infuriating.

But what does Brexit mean for sewers, small businesses, fabric buyers, fabric shops and the textile industry in general?

The flow of Fabric from Europe will slow down   

In the short term, certainly during January and February 2021, there are likely to be problems. There are three reasons for this:

1. The new regulations are complex for EU businesses too

It's easy to think that all businesses were ready for Brexit on both sides of The Channel. But this is not true. The rules have changed considerably and while they are now similar to sending internationally, for example to, say the USA, they are written in language that does not make this clear - and they are not necessarily the same in every circumstance. 

There are myriad issues including how to deal with import/export VAT and the new customs regime, which rely on clear advice and the lack of this has spooked all EU businesses regardless of whether they were already selling worldwide. In the UK the advice has been, to date, poor and lacking clarity - which is why we're seeing the current issues surrounding exporting in particular.  

2. No one wants to be the first to try out the new system

Ports have been unusually quiet and the reason for this is that many UK businesses, including Simple Life Fabrics, decided to stockpile EU goods before the deadline. This is a sensible and reasonable approach to big changes. But it does mean that many EU fabric suppliers and UK retailers are now scared to be the first to try out the new customs system. 

No UK shop really wants to make a new order and no EU wholesale supplier really wants to dispatch. This is an unspoken issue and someone will crack in the end. 

The first sign of trouble ahead came when many EU businesses that sell to the public started suspending orders to the UK because they are very concerned. So it's no surprise that the ports are currently quieter than normal. 

As I write this update to this blog post it's the 16th January and yesterday I plucked up the courage to make an EU order - I am not confident this will run smoothly. I have already had an email from the supplier saying it will not be dispatched until the end of January/beginning of February 'due to the Brexit'.        

3. The paperwork is daunting

Finally, there is now 100% more paperwork than there was before Brexit - and the Border Operating Model document issued by the UK Government at very short notice in late December gives you some idea of how complex this really is. It runs to 159 pages of very dense guidance that for your average business is largely impenetrable. 

In the olden days, fabric was transported to UK shops by a courier such as DPD with minimal checks. From 1st of January every consignment must be checked and must have the correct paperwork which includes the right product codes, descriptions, buyer and seller information and details of origin – i.e. in which country was it manufactured.   

This information for every single order, which in the case of imports over £750 must be declared on the deceptively named Single Administrative Document - all 54 tick boxes of it, must be checked and verified by customs at the point of exit from the EU, usually a shipping port in The Netherlands or France, and then again at one of the UK ports such as Dover. If any of it is wrong, the consignment will be stored and then returned to the EU wholesaler - or in extreme cases, destroyed.

In the first couple of months at least, while systems bed in, if you multiply these checks hundreds of thousands of times every single day you can see that instead of fabric from a European wholesaler taking a matter of days to arrive in the UK, it could now take weeks. And if the paperwork is wrong, it will not get across the border at all.  

That means, in the worst case scenario, the first part of 2021 will be see a dearth of new fabric designs hitting the shops. Plus, although we don’t do pre-orders, customers who do pre-order EU fabrics from other shops might find that they are waiting a lot longer than before. This is no one’s fault and is absolutely unavoidable. 

Fabric from Europe will get slightly more expensive - or a great deal more expensive

Thankfully the UK managed to secure a trade deal with the EU. This means there are no tariffs on fabric, which would have added at least 6% onto the cost of fabric for shops and customers. But there can be no doubt that the cost of importing fabric from Europe into the UK is still going to rise - and this goes for buying from EU online fabric shops too. 

If you're buying from fabric shops in Europe there will be delays and you will now, in most cases, be charged UK import VAT, plus any duties and a handling fee by the courier before they will deliver your parcel. In terms of fabric in UK shops, the price rises remain to be seen but there will be rises, and not just on fabric but on any goods imported from the EU including clothing, electronics, beauty products, and of course food.

UPDATE 15 APRIL 2021

As expected, wholesale prices have now risen at the majority of EU suppliers - which means fabric is now up to 10% more expensive than this time last year - plus most suppliers have added a handling fee to cover the cost of the extra paperwork they need to produce to get fabric across the EU-UK border. 

There are a few reasons for these increases: 

1. The cost of change for the European supplier 

Pre-Brexit we were in the Single Market so for a wholesaler in The Netherlands sending fabric bolts to the UK was just like sending them to, say, Spain. But now the UK is a ‘Third Country’ and that means EU suppliers are deemed to be exporters, and UK businesses are deemed ‘importers’. This radically changes things such as the information needed on all the paperwork - and that means most wholesalers will need to make changes to their computer systems – or at the very least add a great many more details to a consignment on the courier’s website. 

In addition, whereas prior to Brexit wholesalers added VAT at their country's rate onto an order they will no longer do this - the importer, i.e. the fabric shop will pay the UK VAT rate (plus any duties and handling fees) before the consignment is delivered. This might seem like a win for them but it isn't. They now have to complete additional paperwork for their respective authorities to verify that the goods left the EU in order to justify not charging VAT.     

Until July 2021 checks on the border paperwork such as the Single Administrative Document for goods coming into the UK should be minimal as full checks are being phased in. However full checks will start when new regulations come into play in the middle of 2021. That said, problems are already apparent.   

2. Paperwork takes time - and time is money

Secondly, this paperwork obviously takes time to complete – multiple extra steps have been added into the EU wholesaler’s workflow and they need to claw this reduction in efficiency back. Remember, large wholesalers work at speed in huge warehouses – behind the scenes, they have more in common with a factory environment than a retail shop. They generally do not have huge finance teams and this paperwork is a big, new, administrative burden.  

3. Shipping costs will rise

Most importantly, the cost of shipping will definitely increase as courier firms must now jump through hoops at the border that did not exist before. These hoops slow them down and as we all know: time is money. They will levy surcharges to cover the time it takes to clear things through the new border – these costs will be passed on to fabric shops in the UK.

4. Other regulations that could add costs, such as Rules of Origin

In addition (& the impacts of this remains to be seen), Rules of Origin now come into play. This is where an exporter, in our case the textiles wholesaler in the EU, has to state on the customs forms where the fabric was originally manufactured. If the UK does not have a set of preferential trade terms with that country, customs duties will apply, even though we have a free trade agreement with the EU. 

These duties could be steep. A great deal of fabric is manufactured in Turkey (they are a global powerhouse for textiles) and thankfully we secured a deal with them on preferential terms on 29 December - just before the deadline. But, if the fabric originates elsewhere outside the EU before it gets sold into the UK then duties may still apply.    

5. Increased demand due to shortages of fabric 

If there are shortages of fabric this could also push up prices. Where demand is high the manufacturer can raise its prices (sometimes they must because the raw material prices also rise); the EU wholesaler must respond and the UK fabric shop ends up paying a lot more per fabric bolt.     

If we add all these costs together we’re doubtless looking at price increases at some point down the line on all EU-sourced fabrics in all UK shops and for all customers. How much, and when, is not yet known – UK shops will always try to absorb as much cost as they can for as long as they can, and it’s possible that, once it all pans out, these costs will not add very much to a customer’s average order. But it's also possible that they could add a significant amount. We'll all find out in a few months time...        

Some European wholesalers (& hauliers) might decide the UK is more trouble than it’s worth

Price rises are not, in my view, the most pressing issue – or biggest problem.

It became apparent in November 2020 that many EU wholesalers were struggling to find the information they needed to operate under the new UK-EU relationship. This is not surprising, since many UK businesses were, and still are, struggling.

There was always a danger that some EU wholesalers might decide to suspend exports to the UK – cutting off the flow of their fabric entirely, and in fact at the time of writing this has happened in one notable instance. A very large EU fabric wholesaler has emailed its UK retail customers to say they have suspended fabric deliveries to the UK until the end of January. 

In addition, getting the fabric into the UK is likely to become harder over the next few months. In fact, one of the world's largest hauliers, German firm D B Schenker, announced on 13 January that they were suspending deliveries from the EU to the UK - primarily because EU businesses were not completing the new customs paperwork correctly - not a huge surprise given its complexity.    

If either the wholesaler or the hauliers/couriers decided to extend suspension periods and others follow suit it could be catastrophic, especially for sellers of jersey fabric as the vast majority of this comes from EU wholesalers.

However, I think this suspension is unlikely to last more than six weeks at the outside. UK fabric shops have very close ties and partnerships with EU suppliers. It’s not a relationship - certainly for me – that is built on sand. We communicate regularly, trust and respect each other. In terms of the couriers and hauliers I think that's going to get worse before it gets better: more logistics firms will suspend deliveries to the UK not least because many drivers, having been stuck in queues with the wrong paperwork, are now unwilling to come to the UK. 

But where a much smaller supplier does not sell a great deal into the UK it’s quite possible that they might think we’re more trouble than we’re worth. That’s one of the reasons, along with outstanding quality, why I tend to buy from bigger, more established brands such as Poppy Europe and historic family-run brands such as Swafing.

UPDATE: 17 February 2021

I now have around eight separate orders placed with EU wholesalers and brands. However, as of Monday this week I have received only one order into the UK from Europe since 1st January. This order arrived quickly, within one week, and with no issues whatsoever via UPS. I am expecting another order to arrive today from a different supplier via DPD, again with no problems. What unites these two orders is that they are from smaller family-run brands.

The larger suppliers are a different story. The two very largest suppliers have both singularly failed to deliver and I've had numerous email conversations with them explaining to me, sometimes in depth, why they don't know why they can't either send my orders or get them through customs. It's difficult to say why when their smaller competitors can get the paperwork and systems right, and they are using either DPD or UPS. But it remains a frustrating situation.

UPDATE: 4 March 2021

I have spent many hours over the last couple of weeks in email exchanges with my suppliers. It's clear they have found the situation incredibly difficult, and in some cases, rather upsetting. But I think we're on the home straight. However, sadly, we have now hit one major problem: UPS appear to be utterly overwhelmed and therefore I now have two large orders stuck in one of their European hub depots. I receive daily 'Exception Notification' emails that read: 'Your parcel is delayed due to a Brexit related disruption. We are adjusting delivery plans as quickly as possible.' 

This is particularly frustrating because I have paid the duties and import VAT on both orders and they have cleared customs but the UPS depot has ground to what seems like a total halt. My enquiries to UPS are met with a shrug and 'oh it's Brexit and outside our control'. Perhaps they could ask DPD for assistance as all their parcels are getting through with zero delays - if anything, slightly faster than before. 

I now have only one remaining large EU fabric supplier who is not yet delivering to the UK. They are the largest supplier in Europe. After what feels like a million email exchanges, I have given up trying to explain the process and get to the bottom of why they, of all my suppliers, can't ship to me. I am on the verge of cancelling the two large orders I have had outstanding with them from early January. But I'll give them another couple of weeks - thankfully I don't buy a great deal from them.

UPDATE: 30 March 2021 

As it stands today all my EU suppliers are getting their orders through customs and have got to grips with the paperwork - with one notable exception. This large supplier seems unable or unwilling to send orders to non-VAT registered customers in the UK, despite the fact that the process is exactly the same as for VAT registered customers. I cannot tell you how frustrating this is. 

I have had many, many email exchanges with them, all hitting a blank wall comprising various replies including: 'We can't send to people without VAT numbers' (Errr...yes you can and all your competitors are doing it right now, today); 'we're setting up a system to send to UK customers who do not have EORI numbers' (you are quite mad - you cannot sell to a UK business that does not have an EORI number, it's illegal!); 'we're setting up a UK bank account' (why? you don't need one!); 'We're waiting for advice from HMRC' (why?! You don't need advice from HMRC to send my parcels - you are Dutch!) etc. etc. ad nauseam...

I suspect this supplier is planning on opening a depot in the UK - but honestly I just wish they'd say that. So as it stands I have about 10 fabrics on order stuck in The Netherlands, one order which includes some brilliant linen-viscose dress fabrics. This ginormous delay has caused all kinds of issues here, not least that at short notice I've had to source dress fabrics from elsewhere. Thankfully I've managed to do this. 

It's quite possible that one of the problems is that many UK businesses still do not understand that they now need to pay import fees and UK VAT before a parcel will be delivered by the courier. The delivery man from UPS told me last week that business customers were still refusing to pay the charges (even though you can quickly and easily pay them online prior to delivery), saying that they did not know why they were being charged and what these fees were for. Remarkable after all this time.             

UK wholesalers could save the day    

We are lucky enough to have a number of excellent, very supportive UK wholesalers who import EU fabric in large quantities – much larger than any individual shop could do. They will doubtless, and rightly, see Brexit as an opportunity to strengthen their partnerships with existing EU suppliers, and reach out to EU manufacturers direct. They will still experience the same delays and paperwork problems but they have the experience, patience and manpower to ride it through. Although, in the middle of February, it's now becoming apparent that as they buy from the larger EU suppliers they can't get their fabric either!

Over the coming year we may well see an influx of new brands and designs into UK wholesalers which will allow shops access to EU fabrics without the headaches of importing it in smaller quantities themselves. Obviously there is a danger that this will create price rises due to a lack of competition, but we must hope that any rises are kept to a minimum.   

Fabric from outside Europe could get cheaper – but it might not

The flip side of all this is that fabric from other parts of the world could get cheaper – but to be honest there is no guarantee. It appears, at the time of writing, that most new trade deals are just roll-overs of the terms we had when we were members of the EU. But as time goes on, it’s likely that we will agree deals with more favourable terms, reducing or even eliminating any duty. But the shipping costs will still be high, and smaller businesses like mine will still mainly rely on UK wholesalers to do the importing from Asia and India etc.

Is it all bad?

The short answer is ‘no’. Change creates new opportunities and these are often things we can’t predict. It’s quite possible that Brexit will shake up the types and brands of fabric we see in the UK, and that alone is an exciting prospect. Plus the larger established UK brands will expand into designing and producing their own ranges of jersey fabric - so look out for names new to you coming soon! But whatever happens, at Simple Life Fabrics we’re embracing the change, working hard and will always keep on offering you useful, beautiful and unusual fabrics in 2021 and beyond.