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Issue 5 - The Golden Fleece

Scotland Magazine Issue 5
November 2002

 

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The Golden Fleece

GERALDINE COATES ON THE REBIRTH OF QUALITY SCOTTISH KNITWEAR AS A CATWALK HIT

Fine woollens and ‘Made in Scotland’ have long been associated in the mind of the connoisseur consumer as partners in quality. After all, the knitwear industry was invented in the Borders of Scotland when the first specialised techniques for knitting and weaving fine yarns like cashmere were developed over 200 years ago. But up until recently, you could be forgiven for thinking that Scottish knitwear has looked pretty much the same for centuries. The good news for those who want to combine cutting-edge fashion with the cachet of pure Scottish wool is that it’s all changing fast. Today, the products of the Scottish knitwear industry are to be found as often on designer catwalks as they ever were on the golf course or the grouse moor. Part of this is a reaction to economic circumstances. Imported knits made from inferior yarns are everywhere. And no, it doesn’t look as good or last as long as the home-grown version, but, when a cashmere twin set is a third of the price in a high street store that it would be from a leading Scottish label, people tend to vote with their wallets. Potentially this could have spelt doom and
disaster for Scottish knitwear producers and times have been tough: jobs have been lost and companies have gone out of business. But what is astonishing is the way that key players have come out with their tails up, and, realising that they can’t and don’t want to compete with cheap Far Eastern products, have focused on delivering uniquely Scottish quality at the very top end of the international
market. Here, where luxury, high fashion and exclusivity meet, lies the future of Scottish knitwear, and Scottish producers are already re-establishing ‘Made in Scotland’ as a benchmark of the very best in the world in a way that’s never been done before.

Much of the innovation in the knitwear industry today has been driven by the creativity of small independent producers whose imaginative approach has breathed new life into this once highly conservative sector. One of the most successful is Hillary Rohde who founded what was literally a cottage industry and established it as an internationally known brand.

It all started in the 1970s when Hillary, a fashion design graduate, and her husband, Rick, were living in a croft on the remote Knoydart Peninsula in the west Highlands of Scotland. They had been experimenting with spinning, weaving and dyeing local fleeces when Hillary discovered that many of the women in the area were, as she describes it, “knitting junkies”. Because her neighbours couldn’t afford the wool for new things they would knit and unpick garments endlessly. Hillary realised this was a huge pool of talent on which to draw and decided that if they were going to go commercial they might as well use the best possible material – cashmere. At that time cashmere knitwear in Scotland was basically golf jumpers and old-fashioned twin sets in pastel colours aimed at the older market. She also found out that the only commercial cashmere yarn then available was too fine for hand knitting. Undaunted, she commissioned Todd and Duncan, one of the biggest cashmere mills in Scotland, to make a stronger ply wool in the colours she wanted and got her knitters busy on a series of preliminary designs. Her big breakthrough came on a trip to New York when she walked into Bloomingdales with four hand-knitted cashmere sweaters and asked to see the knitwear buyer. As the extremely polite Sales Assistant was giving her an extremely polite brush-off, Hillary produced her sweaters. She laughs: “You’ve never seen such a reaction in your life. Suddenly the buyer who had been totally unavailable appeared and the next minute I had a huge order.” Fulfilling that order had its problems. At that time Knoydart had no telephone system, no mains water, no electricity and was only accessible by sea. Hillary would take a boat to the mainland to liaise with her knitters and talk to Bloomingdales in true ‘local hero’-style from the only telephone box within 50 miles. Her hard work paid off spectacularly and Hillary Rohde Knitwear is now the biggest producer of hand-knitted cashmere in Scotland, employing over 300 knitters, many of them her original west Highland neighbours.

Now based in Edinburgh, the Hillary Rohde range has expanded to include cashmere and cashmere/silk blends made on domestic knitting machines. She sells to many of the world’s top stores as well as designing ranges for leading fashion houses. Her designs are instantly recognisable for their clean structural lines, jewel-like colours and up to date styles. This has attracted a whole new customer base, which 20 years ago would have associated cashmere more with country houses than clubbing.

Where Hillary Rohde and others have led, the big brands have followed. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the most traditional brands of all – Pringle, Ballantyne, Lyle & Scott and others, whose designs have leaped out of granny’s closet into every fashionable wardrobe. At Pringle for example, a major revamp of the brand has resulted in exciting new ranges and a strategy that will see Pringle knitwear sold in the world’s most exclusive stores including the newly opened Harvey Nichols in Edinburgh. This year Pringle presented their first ever salon show at London Fashion Week to great acclaim. As Head Designer Stuart Stockdale explains, “My collection is very British, very glamorous
and yet with a street sensibility.” A recent photograph of style icon David Beckham in a trademark Argyle-pattern Pringle sweater is a sure sign of just how cool the brand has become.

Like Pringle, Ballantyne Cashmere is another brand with a long history that needed to reinvent itself. Founded in the 1920s, Ballantyne is based in Innerleithen in the heart of the Borders woollen industry. With support from parent company Dawson International, Ballantyne commissioned designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Oscar de la Renta and Clements Ribeiro to produce collections of knitwear and accessories. This year’s autumn range features updated classics as well as high-fashion pieces and limited editions. The overall look is younger and sexier and more in tune with today’s lifestyles.

Revisiting the archive has been a key feature of the success that traditional brands are currently experiencing. Lyle & Scott, the famous golf knitwear manufacturers, launched a Vintage Collection earlier this year based on classic sportswear updated with modern colour and streamlined styling. One look at their chic little golf dresses and 1920s style menswear is enough to have you out there practising your swing just so you can wear the clothes.

Scottish knitwear is now to be found on the shelves along with other international high-fashion names such as Gucci, Versace, Prada and Chanel. Leading department store Jenners stocks Pringle, Lyle & Scott, Hawick Cashmere and Johnstons of Elgin knitwear at their Edinburgh branch and Ballantyne at the new Lomond Shores branch. Jenners Knitwear Buyer Karen McKay is confident that Scottish knitwear manufacturers have adopted the right strategy to succeed in a competitive environment. “What the Scottish brands are now doing is giving consumers affordable luxury. They are using lightweight yarns like merino wool and coming up with interesting finishes to make their offer that bit different. Our customers are responding well to this.” A view that could be echoed in designer shops all over the world from New York to Rome, Tokyo to Zurich.

WHERE TO BUY THE BEST ‘MADE IN SCOTLAND’ KNITWEAR

NUMBER TWO
2 ST STEPHEN PLACE, EDINBURGH
Tel: +44 (0)131 225 6256
The original and best for beautiful, unusual knitwear from Margaret Stuart Shetland jerseys, Stephane Jaeger, Muir & Osborne, plus great children’s clothes and an exhibition about Fair Isle knitters

ARKANGEL
WILLIAM STREET, EDINBURGH
Tel: +44 (0)131 226 4466
The only Edinburgh stockists of new season Hillary Rohde

JUDITH GLUE
KIRKWALL, ORKNEY
Tel: +44 (0)1856 874 225

BILLBABER
66 GRASSMARKET, EDINBURGH
Tel: +44 (0)131 225 3249

HARVEY NICHOLS
STANDREW SQUARE, EDINBURGH
Tel: +44 (0)131 524 8388

JENNERS
PRINCES STREET, EDINBURGH
Tel: +44 (0)131 225 2442

THE CASHMERE STORE
2 ST GILES STREET, EDINBURGH
Tel: +44 (0)131 225 5178

FRASERS
EDINBURGH and GLASGOW
Tel: +44 (0)131 225 2472

RAGAMUFFIN
ROYAL MILE EDINBURGH
Tel: +44 (0)131 557 6007

and ARMADALE, ISLE OF SKYE
Tel: +44 (0)1471 884 217

LYNDAUSHER
BEAULY, INVERNESS-SHIRE
Tel: +44 (0)1463 783 017

MOON
10 RUTHVEN LANE, GLASGOW
Tel: +44 (0)141 339 2315

BALLANTYNE, PRINGLE and LYLE & SCOTT have websites:
www.ballantyne-cashmere.co.uk
www.pringle-of-scotland.co.uk
www.lyleandscott.com