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Discovering Scotland's Handmade Clothes

T+L carved a route through the Borders region to the Highlands and discovers why—when it comes to tartans, cashmere, and tweed—some things will always be done by hand.

By Heather Smith MacIsaac

Counting sheep. Not a good thing to be doing while navigating the narrow dual carriageways and even more confining rural roads that traverse eastern Scotland. In a country seemingly more populated by sheep than people, even the major motorway leading to and from the Highlands is only two lanes. During not-infrequent construction projects the route shrinks to one, a situation abjectly apologized for on the spot by the highway authority. But sitting in a line of traffic fully stopped to allow oncoming cars to pass afforded me the chance to study, between fleeting downpours, the lay of the land and the sheep upon it: lambs stumbling after their mothers; rams falling into line behind a leader; ewes grouped in a chat. Black faces blinked back at me, small heads pegged Tinkertoy-like to barrels of fluff atop twiggy black-stockinged legs. No matter where you look in Scotland, the landscape is littered with ruminants out of the popular British Claymation films of Wallace and Gromit. But far from just comical characters, they are the leading representatives of an industry as significant and particular to Scotland as whisky: woolens.

I had wool on my back—a triple-ply cashmere V-neck, made in Scotland—and wool on the brain, ready to embark on a tour of the country’s leading producer of tartan, Lochcarron, in the Borders town of Selkirk. For years I’d been rubbing up against Scottish woolens, first as a schoolgirl suffering the scratchiness of a Black Watch plaid uniform, then as a relieved fetishist of Scottish softness in the form of cashmere. Blankets woven in the family tartan were Christmas gifts one year. Much later my Glaswegian mother-in-law introduced me to 19th-century wool paisley shawls that she treasured as much for their connection to home as for their autumnal beauty.

Paisley got me thinking about other woolens that derive their names from Scottish places: Argyle, Tweed, Fair Isle, Shetland. For a small country, Scotland has been responsible for an outsize portion of wool heritage. Asia had its Silk Road. Scotland deserves a Wool Road. With that in mind, and with limitations of time that prevented ferry trips to the isles, I strung together an idiosyncratic mainland route of 555 miles, taking in textile mills, heritage centers, and shops that celebrated in particular the twin peaks of Scottish woolens: tartan and cashmere. Where most visitors make a beeline for the Highlands, I started south of Edinburgh, in the compact and far less explored Borders region, heartland of Scottish knitwear. There, the Tweed River runs through or close by several major towns, supplying, like a vital artery, the water for life and livelihood…the mills.

After a week, it all began to knit together: my wild rides through Brigadoon landscapes and Shakespearean tempests and my orderly factory tours, led by dedicated workers as delighted to inform as they were that I was so interested. The very same conditions that made Scotland the destination for golf, fly-fishing, salmon, and whisky—rugged topography, consistently cool temps, abundant churning rivers, and streams of pure, soft water—make this small country a standout in the world of fine woolens: lovely cashmere sweaters, wool dressing gowns (Sherlock Holmes’s favorite indoor attire), tweed jackets, and tartan blankets.

For being in a temperate zone, Scotland is still a land of extreme conditions: mighty winds and ample wet, harsh, stony terrain; thorns, thistles, and burrs. Weather’s usual role as conversation starter and uniter blossoms in Scotland into riotous and endless commentary. Nothing beats a reliable mackintosh and wooly jumper whether it’s blowing a-hooly (breezy) or gonna ding doon (pour rain). Forecast: dreich (drizzly)? Best to wear your wellies. Of all the comments and vocabulary I collected en route, the bottom line delivered by Don Matheson, owner of Boath House Hotel, in Nairn, said it best: “There is no such thing as bad weather; there is only unsuitable clothing.” By necessity the Scottish wardrobe is hard-wearing, long-lasting, warm, and water-resistant—all qualities that have the added bonus of igniting a legendarily frugal sensibility. A cashmere sweater that’s a luxury to most people is for a Scot a sensible investment; nothing else comes close in ratio of warmth to weight. Properly cared for, it will last a lifetime.

I was beginning to see sheep not so much as flocks upon the hills but as fuzzy crewel knots embellishing yards of thick melton. Drystone “dykes,” all pockets of shadow amid stacks of rock, that bordered every field and lane evoked equally rough and tough Harris tweed. I saw gorse in bloom across rises of heather and wild thyme as the bright accent color in an earthy plaid. Amid the eddies of the Tweed River, swollen droplets mimicked the patterns in traditional wool shawls that once issued by the thousands from the Jacquard looms in the textile town of Paisley. In the gentler, more English landscape of the southern Borders region, the hills fittingly sported mantles of green as smooth and lush as cashmere.

At Lochcarron of Scotland, over the noise of machinery and through an accent showering my ears like plunking raindrops, I labored to understand Alwyn Johnston. With the depth of an expert and the buoyancy of a newbie, he guided me through every step of tartan production, from dyeing wool and threading looms with spun yarn to fringing scarves after they’d been snipped from yardage. When a red light atop a loom alerts workers to a flaw in weaving, the problem is fixed by hand. At the end of the process, the fabric is forwarded to darners in an adjacent room. Aided by wide light boxes, they spot any additional flaws and make them disappear by threading a single length of yarn through the fabric. This is quality control that can only be addressed by eagle eyes, steady hands, and cheery patience.

From the mill building churning with looms, Johnston and I crossed the drive to a quiet warehouse where row upon row of broad metal shelving presented brilliant bolts of fabric. Each of the 1,300 tartans Lochcarron makes is a meaningful interpretation of a grid, and every design is copyrighted and listed with the Scottish Register of Tartans, thereby reducing, according to the mission statement of its predecessor, the Scottish Tartans World Register, “the likelihood of trivialisation and muddle.” The names of the traditional clan tartans, available in ancient, modern, and weathered variations, read like the roll call of a regiment: Buchanan, Campbell, Duncan, Fraser, Ogilvie, Stewart, Urquhart, Wallace, and many, many Macs. More recent designs reflect the singular ability of tartan to mourn, honor, and celebrate: a New York City tartan (blue for the Hudson River, green for Central Park, two black lines for those lost on September 11); the Diana, Princess of Wales memorial tartan (light blue for her eyes, red heart for her charity work); a Model T Ford centenary tartan (mostly black, with red and gold accents.)

In Lochcarron’s design studio, tradition partners with trend. A banner of the woolen guild trumpets its symbol, a ram suspended by a ribbon (more familiar to Americans as Brooks Brothers’s logo), as well as its motto: We dye to live and live to die. Textile workers are a loyal and direct lot. Thick archival scrapbooks cataloguing historic stripe patterns rest on tables alongside racks holding the latest samples, from the conventional to the more avant-garde in colorway and weave, destined for fashion houses in Europe and Japan. The Japanese have taken to plaid as obsessively as they once adopted golf and whisky, commissioning tartans for everything from school uniforms to couture coats.

To correct for Scottish Jews having gone without their own tartan for three centuries, one that includes the blue and white of the Israeli flag debuted last year. This—a subtle visual with a larger backstory—is what passes for radical in Scotland, a land still remote and clannish enough for change to be not so much viewed with suspicion as seldom contemplated. I well remember my mother-in-law’s modest money-making schemes, fueled by her postwar residency in entrepreneurial America, being soundly squelched by her Glaswegian sister, “Ach, Elsie, you canna do that here.” Tradition hangs as tough in Scotland as the wooly willow to the rocky escarpments battered by high winds off the North Sea. It is the small country’s blessing and its curse. The reason some of the finest cashmere knitwear is produced in Scotland, even if the goat hair itself is imported from Mongolia, is that it’s made following labor-intensive methods practiced for decades. The reason the latest styles don’t typically come from Scotland is that Scottish cashmere is made following the patterns that have stood for decades: God dress the queen.

Change is afoot, though. The country’s textile industry—particularly that focused on tartan and cashmere—is taking “a new walk in the old field,” to quote a Scottish proverb. Pringle of Scotland stepped things up in 2005 by hiring its first creative director, Clare Waight Keller, exactly 100 years after coining the term knitwear for newly introduced garments like cashmere cardigans. Within a year, the buzz at the collections during fashion week in Milan was emitting an unfamiliar signal: Scozia, meaning Scotland.

In Hawick (pronounced Hoyk), the largest town in the Borders and for centuries its capital of textiles, the local government itself has stepped up to recognize the profound importance of textiles to the area. I arrived at theBorders Textile Towerhouse, a handsomely restored 16th-century edifice of rough and smooth stone, only weeks after it opened last spring. Intended to convey the heritage and future of textiles, the intelligent permanent exhibition was just the concise thread I’d been searching for. I moved from sobering displays on the second floor (a large wooden loom that literally loomed, as dark and forbidding as a medieval rack; a blowup of a vintage photo of factory workers, all women and girls bent over their work save for two men standing, obviously supervisors) to flights of fancy on the third floor. Here were the icons of Scottish fashion: Pringle cashmere twinsets from the 50’s, bold intarsia designs from the 60’s by Ballantyne and Braemar, a Vivienne Westwood ode to argyle and tartan (shirt and tie, sweater, skirt, socks, and cap), and a fantastic “armored sweater” by Christopher Kane, Scotland’s newest fashion star.

Compared to the forward thinking on view at the Towerhouse, that of the knitwear companies still clustered in Hawick was somnolent. At Peter Scott, a label most associated with golf sweaters customized with club logos, signing up for a factory tour is as straightforward as entering the outlet shop in the heart of town and asking to see the adjacent mill. One doesn’t so much join a tour as generate one. Every worker was happy to interrupt his rhythm to demonstrate and explain. Each room along the winding way through the 19th-century compound represented a step in the process of putting a sweater together. Workmanship reached a bar set high, but design remained stuck in neutral, with proportions holding fast to boxy shapes, Balmoral casual wear at best.

A drop-in tour of the factory that’s been in operation since 1788 doesn’t exist at Ballantyne, but there’s a list of other invigorations new president and CEO Massimiliano “Max” Zegna Baruffa plans to bring to Scottish cashmere’s most luxurious label. Though the company’s new U.K. postal code–like name—J.J. & H.B. 1788 Cashmere Mills—is a bit of a hurdle, Baruffa’s otherwise spot-on instincts promise to restore luster to the label. While improving efficiency on the one hand, he is working to preserve the intensive handwork required for intarsia, a technique that has always set Ballantyne apart. Elaborate designs of roadsters, butterflies, polo players, and favorite hounds (Baruffa will soon be able to wear on his chest the Weimaraners he raises) are still produced using colored pencil and graph paper before being transferred to looms and handmade by artisans who apprentice for no less than two years. Experienced finishers simply sense how long to wash cashmere—from seven to 45 minutes—to achieve the softest and cleanest fibers. The number of things a computer cannot do may be the ticket to the Scottish cashmere industry’s future.

Ballantyne has its Italian; Todd & Duncan, supplier of cashmere yarn to Hermès, Gucci, Dior, and Dolce & Gabbana, has an Irishman, James McArdle, effecting change. A genial businessman who values local yet thinks global, McArdle is moving his company forward by recognizing the past. While chairman of the Scottish Cashmere Club, a consortium of 13 heritage labels, he celebrated Scotland’s unique standing with the launch of a website detailing the craft, quality, and innovation associated with its members. The elegant and soft-spoken manner of the site allows cashmere to sell itself.

Curiously, the farther north I ventured in Scotland, away from the concentration of mills in the Borders, and Scotland’s more populated Glasgow-Edinburgh midsection, the more sophisticated the marketing of textiles became. The House of Bruar, a compound of buildings surrounding a courtyard, including the Men’s and Women’s Wear Hall, Food Hall, Knitwear and Cashmere Hall, Country Living Hall, and Rod and Reel restaurant, takes its architectural cues (whitewashed stucco; slate roofs) from a traditional Victorian hunting lodge. But its offerings are merchandised, American-style, to the hilt. House of Bruar’s position, hard by the motorway just north of Pitlochry with easy access and ample parking, is designed to snag every traveler making his way to the Highlands. And its range of wares is intended to provide everything one might need (or want) before entering the wilds: somber waxed Barbour coats, vivid quilted jackets, horn-handled knives, tweed dog beds and footstools, and hampers packed with haggis and Hendrick’s gin. Outside, under the awning, wooden wheelbarrows offer packets of Scottish peat to fire up the stove.

In the House of Bruar’s Knitwear Hall, I finally came across the stylish woolens I was looking for. In shades either subtler or brighter and proportions longer and narrower than the classic styles, here at last were cashmere sweaters I could see treasuring for decades. Nearly every piece I was attracted to bore the label johnstons of elgin. This was a hopeful sign; Johnstons and the town of Elgin, a spit away from the Moray Firth that spills into the North Sea, were my final destination.

Compared with its neighbor, the 13th-century Elgin Cathedral, now a magnificent ruin, Johnstons (est. 1797) is a spry youth, though still one of the oldest mills in Scotland. Certainly, its approach to business is up-to-date. Here is a company that recognizes that visitors may have traveled hours to get to Elgin, only to forgo the mill tour in favor of a quick pass through the Heritage Centre before getting to the main objective: shopping. To be fair, the Heritage Centre, launched just one year ago with their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay (a.k.a. Charles and Camilla) in attendance, does cover all the steps of production in a succinct and polished presentation. Best of all are a taxidermied Mongolian goat (my, what a lovely coat) and a touchy-feely installation comparing the dreamiest natural fibers: cashmere, vicuña, alpaca, merino lamb’s wool, angora, and camel hair.

I had launched my trip with tartan immersion. Now, near its finish, I discovered at Johnstons’s Heritage Centre a tartan variation known as estate tweeds. Far from the salt-and-pepper variety favored by professorial types, estate tweeds, essentially plaids that are protected patterns in subtle natural shades, are expensive camouflage for hunters and sophisticated woolens for those not swaddled at birth in a family tartan. An estate tweed identifies a place rather than a clan. Johnstons stocks 30 patterns for custom orders, carries a range of clothing as well as upholstered furniture in estate tweeds, and has a bespoke service for custom tweeds.

The actual tour of Johnstons’s mill at a bend in the Lossie River covers all the usual bases, and then some. It was here that I encountered teasels. I had always wondered what gave fine cashmere a ripply finish akin to silky-smooth curly maple. Turns out it’s the very same gift of nature—the thistle-like head of a teasel plant—that fluffs the upholstery of Rolls-Royces. When wet, the spiky ends of the head “tease out” and comb the cashmere fibers. A cashmere scarf or sweater that pills hasn’t met a teasel.

A big revolving drum with metal bars houses the teasels, yet another machine among dozens that hum and whir and clickety-clack throughout Johnstons’s campus of mill buildings dating as far back as the late 18th century. But it takes a skilled worker to recognize when teasels need to be replenished, just as it takes an old hand to sense how long to leave wool in a dyeing vat to achieve a particular color. My visits to the textile mills had delivered an unexpected reaction: an appreciation more for the Marys, Margarets, and Graces, the Brians, Arthurs, and Georges, than for all the 19th- and 20th-century automation that had propelled Scotland to international standing in the world of woolens. It was eye work and handwork, so practiced they appeared intuitive, that deserved the glory and that led me to understand why Scotland-made came at a price worth paying.

Heather Smith MacIsaac was formerly an editor at Travel + Leisure.