The stunning natural landscapes of Scotland are home to leading wool and cashmere producers renowned the world over. We talk to Pringle of Scotland, Johnstons of Elgin and Begg & Co
For the past two centuries, the sparse but atmospheric landscapes of Scotland have been the backdrop for a prolific textile industry with a particularly strong focus on cashmere and wool. Knowing how to harness the power of heritage while constantly striving for innovation, British brands Pringle of Scotland, Johnstons of Elgin and Begg & Co have consistently remained at the forefront of the field.
Each of these brands has a rich history of well over a century. Pringle of Scotland, now famous worldwide for its cashmere products and signature argyle pattern, began as a Hawick-based manufacturer of knitted hosiery in 1815. Johnstons of Elgin, which has a weaving mill in Elgin and a knitting mill in Hawick, was founded in 1797. Begg & Co came into being in 1866 when founder Alex Begg began manufacturing woollen shawls.
Firmly rooted in their respective Scottish towns for decades, these brands have an intrinsic connection to the community. Johnstons of Elgin has a very close relationship with the people of Hawick and Elgin, which has developed naturally over time. ‘Because we are a big employer in our community – everyone in Elgin and Hawick knows somebody who works for Johnstons – it becomes quite natural to behave in a way which is supportive and respectful to the local community,’ explains CEO Simon Cotton. ‘It’s not something that we have to force.’ Begg & Co, which has been based in Ayr since 1902, has a similarly tight-knit relationship with its employees which, in turn, fosters loyalty. ‘We are fortunate to have benefited from multiple generations of families who have worked with us,’ says a spokesperson. ‘One current employee has been with us for 44 years.’ Craft and technical skills are thus passed down from one generation to another.
Aside from a deep connection with local people, there’s also an evident love affair with Scotland itself. Begg & Co draws inspiration from the country’s picturesque landscapes and architecture. The brand’s designs pay homage to its origins, down to the very names of products: Scottish place-names such as Jura, Rona, Kishorn and Arran. Pringle of Scotland frequently pays tribute to its roots; its autumn/winter 2018/19 menswear collection looks to the Shetland archipelago off the north coast of Scotland. New takes on classic Shetland jumpers feature reinterpretations of the famous Fair Isle pattern, while Shetland fishermen’s jumpers are updated with the Pringle logo. For all of these brands, Scottish nature and landscapes serve as inspiration for new reinterpretations of knitwear designs and techniques.
While all three companies are often labelled heritage brands, each has a pioneering approach that has ensured its longevity in an era marked by extensive delocalisation of the British textile industry. This season, for example, Pringle of Scotland looked beyond the realms of knitwear by collaborating with emerging British jeweller Gala Colivet Dennison. Together they have created Scottish agate brooches, which sit in perfect harmony with the knitwear designs, adding a new dimension to the collection.
For the team at Begg & Co, it’s about hitting the right balance. ‘We recognise the benefits that new technology and approaches can provide and we are indeed happy to adopt these when they contribute to making an even better product. However, the drive for efficiency, automation or faster throughput can compromise on absolute quality; craftsmanship is essential because each individual uses their skills to create the finest products.’ Nowadays Begg & Co pairs the use of traditional mill machinery with computerised technology, combining the best of each approach. The results can be seen in the exquisite product offering, including seasonal pieces and collaborations that creative director Lorraine Acornley has had an instrumental role in developing since she took the reins last year.
Simon Cotton of Johnstons shares a similar standpoint on the art of balancing past and present. ‘The Scottish textile industry is particularly known for cashmere knitwear, so when you’re making cashmere you’re making something that is traditional to Scotland,’ he says. ‘However, it doesn’t need to feel or look traditional because it is building on that tremendous rich heritage.’
Heritage, he adds, has to be used cleverly. ‘I actually see that the heritage element is part of the toolbox that you can use when you are creating new things.’ This was exemplified at the brand’s London Fashion Week debut for autumn/winter 2018/19. The collection, which offers pieces for both women and men, features complex fabrications including stretch matte cashmere, hand-drawn jacquard designs and more, illustrating the brand’s aptitude for innovative techniques. Tartan is astutely incorporated into the collection: a reference to the archive, carefully added in a way that avoids any suggestion of being dated.
Always pushing the boundaries both creatively and technically, Scotland’s cashmere and wool specialists prove that it is possible to embrace heritage status while developing a modern luxury brand.