A finer, softer material than wool, the rich, silky texture of cashmere has long been considered a key piece of sartorial luxury, with a price tag to match. Emma Johnson seeks out some of the British producers who pride themselves on their home-grown yarns.
Investing in a piece of cashmere which has been lovingly made in Scotland, means you are not only buying the very best product which will last for many years,” says Angela Bell, founder and designer of British cashmere brand Queene and Belle, “You are also helping to sustain a community of skilled workmen and women and a British industry which has been going for over 200 years.”
Scotland has a proud and illustrious history of producing some of the worlds’ best cashmere – and creating this soft, light material, beloved by everyone from mountain shepherds to pampered celebrities, is an extraordinarily intricate and skilful process. Cashmere comes from cashmere goats, and is made from the long, silky strands of undercoat around the goat’s neck and underbelly. For this fine underdown to be sold and turned into cashmere, the hair is gathered during the spring shearing, when the goats naturally shed their tougher winter coat, though in some places it is removed by hand with a coarse comb, which, while time-consuming, produces a higher yield of the softest, purest cashmere. After shearing or combing, the hair is removed from the wool, leaving only the finest, softest strands to be dyed and turned into yarn. The natural crimp of cashmere fibres helps them to interlock during the manufacturing process and allows the fibres to be spun into very fine, lightweight fabrics.
The word cashmere comes from the old Indian word Kashmir, a region in northern India and Pakistan where cashmere has been manufactured for thousands of years, and where it is also known as pashmina, due to its use in the area’s famous handmade shawls. Today, however, it is a highly sought after yarn that can be found all over the world, from Japan to New Zealand, and Scottish cashmere itself is renowned as being a market leader. “The mills that make our cashmere were established over 200 years ago and have been employing local Scottish families for generations,” explains a representative at Brora, the renowned Scottish cashmere brand. The company’s northern mill does all its dyeing, spinning and weaving, while its mill in the Borders makes the knitwear. The company works very closely with the mills, both of which have been with Brora since their begin.nings in 1993. “Working with a long-established mill over many years brings both continuity and a great sense of community,” they explain. “Sadly, many mills in Scotland have been closed over recent years due to British brands moving their manufacturing abroad to increase profits. We feel proud that Brora is there to help support these traditional mills and, through them, their communities.” Thankfully, they are not the only ones to feel passionately about supporting a key part of the British craft industry.
At Johnstons of Elgin, both their Hawick and Elgin mills produce woven and knitted products that have been lovingly made by devoted craftspeople, some of whom have been honing their skills with the brand for almost 50 years. “The experience and tradition rooted in our history have been passed down through generations,” explains a Johnston’s representative. “Over the years we have expanded our business and extended the mill, but we have also built a community, which, time and again, has proved to be our greatest asset. Our commitment to our people is our pledge to the future – and we are especially concerned with the preservation of traditional craft, do.ing our utmost to ensure the conservation of these special, increasingly rare, skills.” Elsewhere, the production and sale of cashmere is part of a proud and prestigious family business. Owned by the Birkbeck family, The House of Bruar in Scotland, for instance, has been making and selling cashmere for over 20 years. The Knitwear Hall at their store in the beautiful Perthshire countryside is home to the widest selection of pure cashmere in the UK, and visitors can expect to be greeted by an impressive array of cashmere in almost every colour. “Our main ethos is colour,” explains Knitwear Buyer, Lorna MacLeod. “We do all our basic styles in over 25 colours each, and people often say that their first impressions of our knitwear hall is the mouth-watering array of colour. British-made cashmere is so special, because the quality and finish of the yarn is superior, especially in Scotland where the water is so soft,” she adds.
DEFINED BY QUALITY
This commitment to supporting and protecting ancient techniques and high-skilled workers, means that companies producing cashmere in Scotland have access to the best of materials and craftsmanship. “Scotland’s links to cashmere go back over 200 years and Begg & Co’s fine heritage dates back to 1866,” says Ann Ryley, director at Begg & Co who has been producing cashmere in Scotland for 150 years. “Inside our factory, traditional, time-tested production techniques are applied, such as pummelling the cloth in a century-old wooden milling machine to release short fibres for a soft handle, or using specially-grown hand-harvested Italian teasel plant heads, brushed on with a sprinkling of Scottish water, to create that characteristic ripple effect.” Futhermore, the brand also uses numerous pieces of cutting-edge equipment, including computerised jacquard weaving machines. “Every task, however small, is given the care and attention it deserves,” adds Ryley. “Manufacturing excellence requires dedication, devotion and years of practice. It is the selection of raw material that forms the basis for our products, but it is also skill, artisanship, attention to detail, pride and passion.” For Angela Bell, attention to detail is also a crucial aspect of her work. “We use the very best cashmere from Todd & Duncan, who are based in Kinross, north of Edinburgh, and were established in 1867,” she says. “They are one of the oldest cashmere spinners in the world and source their yarn from Inner Mongolia. They are world-renowned for supplying the best quality yarn, their cashmere fibre is a long staple, which means that there is less chance of pilling. Cheaper cashmere is made from shorter staple fibres and if the fibre is rubbed it will come out, gather together and form pilling balls. As cashmere is such a delicate fibre it is really difficult to prevent it from pilling, no cashmere is immune but cheaper cashmere will tend to pill more quickly and never recover from it.”
CLOSE KNIT CLARITY
Such technical information might seem a bit excessive, but if you want to invest in cashmere, it pays to know what you’re looking for. As with many other luxury items, there are now numerous variations on the market that have tried to cut corners, and thus reduce cost. Of course, this also means a dramatic drop in quality, so it’s essential you can pick out cashmere that has been made to the highest standards. “When washed, a high quality cashmere garment should always come up pretty much like new, whereas, a low-grade or cheap cashmere never really returns to its original state, it will look floppy, felted and will never retain its shape,” warns Angela Bell. To start with, make sure that the label reads 100 per cent cashmere – there are lots of cashmere mixes available, but they aren’t as durable. It’s also important to choose pieces that have a close, even knit, clear stitch clarity and a vibrant, even colour, with a good lustre. “A good quality cashmere is almost always “fully-fashioned”, adds Bell. “This means it is knitted to an exact shape and rarely ever sewn into one place. Each panel is linked together by hand, using cashmere yarn.” “Always go for a minimum of two ply,” adds Linda Birkbeck.
“It should always feel soft, but not too loosely knitted. If it is a tight knitting it will keep it’s shape longer and should be less liable to piling.” Bell also recommends making sure the garment doesn’t feel ‘soapy’, which is a big indicator that softeners will have been added to the cashmere. Scottish cashmere in particular always has a very clean feel because the yarn is delivered ‘greasy’ and then washed in the soft Scottish water to give it a pure finish.
While the production of Scottish cashmere might be inspired by ancient techniques and traditional crafts, modern brands are taking inspiration from the here and now when it comes to creating their most wearable pieces. Begg & Co takes inspiration from the wonderful depth of colour and iconic imagery in its Scottish homeland, and this can be seen in their oversized black and white check shawl, whose design is inspired by a traditional Scottish shepherd’s shawl. In addition, their superfine lightweight cashmere scarves – a year round favourite – continue to make a key appearance in both the AW and SS collections. And not to shy away from colour and vibrancy: “To celebrate our 150th Anniversary this year, we are launching an exclusive limited edition check which contains 150 colours, as well as showing 150 exquisite colours in our plain cashmere qualities,” says Ann Ryley. At Queene and Belle, the focus is also proudly on being different and dynamic. “When I started Queene and Belle in 2000 it felt like the perfect time to do something different,” says Angela Bell. “We were accepted quickly as being quirky, with an optimistic artistic approach. Scottish cashmere was traditionally seen as classic sweaters or a twinset and pearls, and I didn’t shun that heritage, but I decided to embrace its fundamental classic roots and give them an injection of newness by updating silhouettes and incorporating modern quirky graphics and colour in the form of intarsia (a knitting technique used to create patterns with multiple colours).” Bell’s striking intarsia motifs tend to change with the seasons, while throughout the year she brings in influences as far removed as North American Indians, Buddhas, skulls and stars in every format. “Peace signs are a big favourite too,” she says. “Imagery which has a certain spirituality really appeals to me.” Recently her collection has developed a more luxurious street edge, with lots of classic Americana graphics – bold varsity numbers and wording – adorning her more traditional pieces. For Autumn Winter 2016, the Gaucho Rose sweatshirt, Cactus Flower V-Neck sweater and the Monarch cardigan are especially intriguing, while her ponchos remain absolute bestsellers. It’s great to see such a diverse and eclectic approach to this classic heritage product, coupled with a real commitment to traditional skills and crafts. The protection of truly home-grown, British-made industries is vitally important in an ever more globalised world, and it’s clear that Scottish cashmere is here to stay.
Begg & Co: beggandcompany.com
The House of Bruar: houseofbruar.com
Johnstons of Elgin: johnstonscashmere.com
The Travelwrap Company: thetravelwrapcompany.com
Queen and Belle: queeneandbelle.com
Dunedin Cashmere: dunedincashmere.co.uk
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