Despite a year of mounting problems, Spanish spinners, weavers and knitters manage to remain optimistic about the future prospects for their industry writes Sonia Roberts.

This positive attitude is buoyed by a belief that the next few months will see a generally improved economic situation across the whole of the EU. But the industry is also confident that its recent investments in innovative production methods will generate new business and persuade existing customers to spend more freely.

2003 was not a happy year for the Spanish. The 12 months ended on 31 December saw spinners' exports fall by five per cent and weavers' by two percent - a disastrous situation for an industry which, in more normal years, reckons to export some 70 per of its textile production.

Three quarters of Spain's textile exports have traditionally been to its EU neighbours. In 2003 falling levels of demand in Germany, France, Italy and Portugal hit Spanish producers hard.

Meanwhile exports to nations outside the EU were adversely affected by increases in the value of the euro against the dollar. Ironically the appreciation of the euro also cut into Spanish home market sales of yarns and fabrics by making imports from Asian countries with dollar-linked currencies easier.

As a result, although levels of imports from all sources dipped by four per cent, the Asian nations increased their share of imports to 30 per cent.

The only feasible action Spanish textile producers could take to remedy this situation was to reduce their own production levels.

Estimates of the severity of such cut-backs vary, but most experts agree it was around five per cent, with an equivalent level of job losses throughout the industry. This in turn was reflected in cutbacks in public spending, and especially fashion spending in the home market.

Secret weapons
So what are Spain's secret weapons in its textile trade's fight back to prosperity?

Most fabric producers cite co-operation with forward-looking dyers to create more imaginative colour ranges. Space dyed and multi-tone yarns are also a strong feature of the latest collections presented by houses like Textiber, Marquitex and Cadena, while many of their peers and rivals are introducing qualities in which light reflecting metallics play a major role.

This is a look that most Spanish producers see as integral to winter 2005/6 success in the high fashion sector of the global market.

Meanwhile spinners and knitters talk of exploring new blend possibilities, not just unconventional mixes of manmade and natural fibre, but the introduction of wholly new, usually vegetable derivative, fibres to the textile scene.

Fabrics that - like mock polyesters made from Ingeo - are not what they at first seem earn a place in most winter 2005/6 Spanish collections.

Silks processed and treated to make them suitable as outer wear are a typical example of this trend. So are denims finished to simulate flannel. And whereas denim used to be a market dominated by cotton, the latest ranges from specialist producers such as Textil Santanderina and Tejidos Royo are now also likely to contain cotton/wool or cotton/Lyocell and to be offered in stretch, as well as standard qualities.

It is in denims that fancy finishing creating novelty surface effects reaches its ultimate. Coatings which lend a papery handle or the gloss of an oil cloth are among the novelties with which the Spanish are now experimenting, along with artificial ageing techniques often employed only for selected areas of the finished garment.

Both polished and felted finishes also make their bow, not just predictably in woollen collections but also from producers previously concentrating on classic luxury fibres such as mohair, cashmere or angora.

Added warmth
Sometimes the intrinsically soft, warm handle associated with luxury fibres is achieved by the use of chenille-style yarns. The desire to give added warmth, always an important attribute for winter season collections is, say leading Spanish knitters, encouraging greater interest in pile fabrics of all types.

They confidently expect customers to be ordering faux furs in quantity for winter 2005, both as garment trims and as outer wear fabrics in their own right. Faux furs can be wildly shaggy or close approximations of natural animal skins.

Several producers also say that garment manufacturers looking for novelty effects are starting to order qualities which would previously have been only considered suitable for sale into the toy trade for making into teddy bears and other cuddly soft toys.

Men's wear trends
Spanish producers are however not exclusively concerned with women's wear fashion trends. Companies like Textil Dobert and Puig Codina have always looked toward the more formal end of the men's wear market.

Today Spanish producers in this sector believe that the current demand for retro looks reflecting the heyday of the suit and the sports jacket in the late l930s and early 1940s could be turning the market in their direction once more.

It is a trend being interpreted in a revival of interest in Shetlands and lambswools for jacketings, and in suitings the re-emergence of classic patterns such as Prince of Wales checks.

Spanish manufacturers are also prepared to compete with the British in the production of fabrics once specific to the UK. Subtly updated versions of hairy Harris Tweed now entering the international marketplace bear a "made in Spain" tag.

Last but no means least in their bid for recovery, Spanish spinners and weavers are eager to establish themselves at the forefront of the drive to become more eco-friendly.

Moretex has, for instance, embraced the Sandye system of dyeing with the aim of cutting back on the level of contamination in the wastes from its dyehouse. Similarly Puig Codina is devoting time, energy, and investment to making more widespread use of eco-friendly dyestuffs and vegetal resins.

Will these various strategies succeed in restoring health to the Spanish textile industry? Obviously only time will tell, but what is certain is that the Spanish will be doing their utmost to ensure that the rest of the world is fully aware of the efforts they are making.

Promotions include continued high profile participation in trade fairs, backed by lavish distribution of point-of-sale aids - such as the distinctive carrier bags dispensed to trade fair visitors.

This year has also seen the screening of an updated website through which Spanish textile producers aim to alert potential customers around the world with what's new and what's most interesting about their current yarn and fabric offers.

By Sonia Roberts.