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 the Borders 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.