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Discovering Scotland's Handmade Clothes

Producing a scarf for the Brooks Brothers Black Fleece label, designed by Thom Browne, at J.J. & H.B. 1788 Cashmere Mills, in Innerleithen, in the Borders region.

Photo: Martin Morrell

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.

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