Scottish Textiles: The Unfortunate Demise of an Industry

by MR Magazine Staff

By Lynn Elliot, Independent British designer and cloth maker


MR magazine editor Karen Alberg, in conjunction with Initiatives in Art and Culture, recently moderated a panel entitled Twist on Tradition: Sensational, Sustainable Scotland. Although he was unable to attend the NYC event, British designer and cloth maker Lynn Elliott weighed in on the state of the textile industry in Scotland.

Scotland has a wonderful, varied and colorful landscape: mountains, hills, moors, forests and sparkling rivers abound. Because of the need for water as a source of power and a cleaning agent, the mills developed along the banks of these rivers.

Until well into the 1960s and ’70s, cloth designers working in the mills were local men, educated in the valleys who travelled only as far as the college in the nearest town to further their industrial education. At the mill their work was done within the confines of a cramped office with occasional visits to the weaving shed. Their only form of inspiration was what they saw around them on their journeys to and from the mill or during their scant leisure time on the Sabbath.

DSCF0319But what a panoply of a palette they had to work with! The myriad, ever changing colors of the hills, swept by sun and cloud to dark and light. The seasonally changed hues of bracken and heather, pine and peat. The tumbling waters rushing and plunging over moss covered stones worn smooth to reveal their unique patterns of ancient stratification. All these, in the right hands, could be and were, transmuted into the cloth.

In the dye houses of the mills the ecru wool was colored to the designer’s instruction, small quantities of these selected shades were chosen by the experienced eye of the blender and made their way into the blending room to be mixed in the required amounts to produce each individual melange of colors. The colored wool was then spun into a single yarn of chosen count or diameter.

From these single yarns of color, two- and three-ply twisted yarns were made, either in individual shades or mixtures of one, two or three. These multihued yarn combinations were the designer’s paint box from which to adorn his canvas.

Wonderful cloths were made, resplendent in the shades of hill and glen, flashes of bright decoration yarns in floral shades or the silvers and golds of stream, salmon and trout. The world was their marketplace and many others attempted to imitate and copy them, but they could never achieve that particular sparkle that the Scottish twist cloths had.

HB Colours

Mills and merchants built huge reputations; Crombie, Ballantyne, Reid and Taylor, R.G Neill, Keith & Henderson, Wain Shiell, John G. Hardy and others manufactured and carried bunch upon bunch of bespoke cloth ranges in all weights and forms of these splendidly multi-colored creations.

Durable Cloths Sound the Mills’ Death Knells
Because of the construction of the yarns and the build of the cloths they were, by nature, quite heavy, 14 to 15, 16 to 17 and even as much as 18 to 19 ounces per yard for three-ply. Substantial cloths, made to last and in so doing, sounding the death knell for most of the mills that produced them. Centrally heated homes, air-conditioned work spaces, motor cars with heaters and a general trend towards a less fettered feeling in clothing made these beautiful works of art unnecessary and unwanted by the 1980s. They had had a glorious century and the mills that made them had prospered, but their specialization made it difficult to change and adapt to the market’s new requirements. Outmoded working practices, over-staffed and ill-equipped, with pre- or slightly post-war machinery, their ability to compete with newly equipped German and Italian mills made the end for most inevitable. Companies merged, groups were formed hoping to benefit from economies of scale, but in so doing the individuality and variety went out of Scottish cloth production and the end, for most, was only forestalled.

Various business development organizations, all government funded, would have us believe that there is still a strong textile and clothing industry in the land. Patently untrue: since a latter day employment high point in the 1980s of 57,000 people, the work force employed in textile and clothing production has now fallen to under 20,000. A drop of well over 50 percent and 2.5 times greater than that of Scottish industry in general .

Of this 20,000, more than 60 percent are estimated to be in the clothing end of the trade, meaning that 8,000 are reputedly still employed in cloth manufacture, a figure that seems very difficult to substantiate when individual mills can now be counted on the fingers of two hands.

So it is from this standpoint that we must consider the word “sustainable.” Preservation would seem more apt: the Scottish weaving industry is, without doubt, an endangered species.

The So-Called Twist on Tradition
Some degree of realism has to be employed in understanding the phrase “Twist on Tradition.” This well thumbed idea has been bandied around in many guises for as long as I can remember. What I cannot recall, however, are any long term beneficial effects or notable changes that have resulted from the initiatives put forward. It seems to be yet another spending of money by one of the U.K. or Scottish Quangos, unaccountable and indefinable in terms of cost and result.

Landscape in Harris Tweed by Jane Jackson
Landscape in Harris Tweed by Jane Jackson

Perhaps then we should look at Tradition. Just which traditions are we “Twisting,” in textile terms we have Tweed, Tartan, Cashmere and Harris.

Mainstream demand for Tweed is irregular; it floats in and out of fashion, sometimes dependent on which particular period drama is airing on TV or in the cinema at the time. Presently we are blessed with the country scenes of Downton as we have in the past had Forsyte and Brideshead.

Some of the better-known brands and fashion houses desire the authentic product but mostly the clothing companies will find their “tweed” in cheaper places such as Bulgaria or South America!

The traditional tweed market—by that I mean hunting, shooting and fishing—is doing relatively well: brand names abound and they do seem to demand some authenticity. However, with the increasing number of companies who are involved the margins are being squeezed, the cloths are getting skimpier and product is being shifted offshore. Some well known brands are featuring tweed produced along the banks of the Yellow River rather than the fabric’s namesake.

Tartan, well what can one say? In what other guise will we see this fabric in the next annual NYC jamboree, what other twists can be employed or squeezed out of this perennial standby?

Cashmere is hanging on, but it is now a bastardized item. Once a yearned for, crown of the wardrobe product it has become mainstream. The Chinese/Mongolian manufacturers have driven down the price and reputation in order to fill their factories as their production capacity increased in their own recent great boom. The likes of our own M & S offer “washable” cashmere knitwear at ludicrous prices and the once prized cashmere scarf can be bought for any price along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, made everywhere from Elgin to Bangladesh.

This dumbing down obviously flows along the supply chain to the mills and knitwear factories causing closures and redundancies in high labor cost areas such as Scotland. Two Hawick cashmere knitwear companies were recently rescued from a similar fate, one being bought by a trade partner the other by its major customer.

Harris, by its very nature and its own definition, cannot be “Twisted” in many more directions than it already has been. Its shade range now beggars belief. Gone are the days of Haggas’s limited palette of a dozen somber hues, now every color of the rainbow is possible. But this, in itself, carries dangers for the manufacturers: each individual shade calls for the same efforts described above, dyeing, blending, spinning and of course stockholding, the bane of every accountant’s life.

What other product can they hope to “Twist” out of it?

It comes in all forms of male and female attire, it is made into every conceivable accessory from key fobs to boots, brollies to briefcases, cars are upholstered in it and bicyclist trimmed in it. Where ever next?

And all this from a declining number of men and women who weave on machines which are pedal powered. A recent initiative to increase the number of weavers did not meet with great success, of the 25 people given government assisted training and favorable terms to purchase their own loom, only around a dozen are now producing. Sustainable ?

In Langholm, the town where I designed for an established mill before being made redundant, there have been mills since the 1700s. They were the largest employers and also created many other jobs in the trades which supplied and serviced them. The town now has one weaving company, using outdated machinery and employing a maximum of 20 people with an average age somewhere in the 50s. The company is owned by Korean group, the previous one to close was owned by an Indian conglomerate.

Against this backdrop of continuous decline, small enterprises still keep appearing. Textiles is in the blood, it is almost a drug and this coupled with the fact that the majority of textile people know no other trade, ensures a never ending stream of mini ventures that cannot ever make up for the mill closures but do keep some spark of the industry alive and a degree of the knowledge passed along.

Magical Processes
To produce an ordinary piece of wool or poly-wool cloth for the majority of the marketplace these days requires little in the way of magic, just a weaving machine and a finishing tub. The yarns are skinny, spun out to the fibers’ limit, no body or roundness to give the cloth loft.

But to produce some of the beautifully constructed works of art that we have been rightly famous for needs something akin to alchemy. We have been blessed with years of accumulated experience in the reactions of water and wool, the introduction of color into that process, the handling and timing of all the complex routines involved in the correct finishing of the cloth.

With all man’s ingenuity in the engineering of metal, we have been unable find a substitute for the simple teasel to complete the raising of a fine cashmere velour.

The penny-chasing, bottom line-conscious buyers in the U.S. clothing industry were, to my mind, responsible for a great change in the quality of menswear. We had always been taught and always adhered to the fact that a properly constructed cloth had to be square and balanced i.e. a similar number of the same threads in each inch in warp and weft . This held fast until sometime in the 1980s when, through advances in spinning technology, it was possible to produce weaving quality yarns on the worsted system in single form rather than the conventional two-folded.

To us in U.K. and to purists generally, this weaving with a two-fold warp crossed with a single ply weft took the body out of the cloth, but it was cheaper. It did however become the norm with our Italian competitors who were the largest suppliers to the U.S. and has since become accepted through out the world.

I remember being told by a buyer in NYC, “Your cloths are too honest.” Perhaps they still are and we have paid the price.