Chanel firm Barrie Knitwear cashes in on cashmere
With London fashion week in full swing, Scotland is expected to feature prominently on the catwalks – not just in the design effort.
It seems the fashion world is warming to wool and that’s good news for Scotland’s textile industry.
One of the world’s best known fashion labels, Chanel, chose Scotland to manufacture much of its knitwear more than 30 years ago.
That business relationship was cemented two years ago when the company acquired the Barrie knitwear factory in Hawick.
The mill has been weaving and stitching for more than 100 years. Today about 100 women sit at linking machines in one hall of the factory.
Even with modern processes, and a £1m-plus investment by Chanel in new machinery over the past year, much of the work is done by hand.
And it is highly skilled work.
In order to safeguard these skills, Chanel bought the factory when it came up for sale. As well as Chanel, the mill supplies other top design houses and its own new Barrie brand.
Barrie Knitwear sales director Clive Brown says: “The product is becoming more complex, the days of us making v-neck and crew necks are almost gone.”
“Some people would say it’s almost like dressmaking in cashmere now. It’s all fully-fashioned, sometimes we have four panels in sweaters, sometimes we can have nine.”
Barrie employs 220 people and makes about 90,000 sweaters a year – 96% of which are cashmere.
But the company is finding it difficult to get the skilled staff.
“Since Chanel took over, we’ve hired another 60 people and I expect we’ll need another 60 over the next couple of years,” says Mr Brown.
“But at the moment if we could get another 20 or 25 people with the right skills, I’d take them on tomorrow.”
Chanel has set up its own training school in the factory for up to 18 young people. It takes about 18 months to train them to the right standard before they are let loose on knitwear which retails for thousands of euros each.
But even with those efforts, Clive Brown says the factory is finding it difficult to keep up with demand.
“The business is growing weekly,” he explains.
“It’s difficult for us to understand ourselves how fast the business is growing.
“It’s at a point now when we’re turning business away. The order book is fantastic.
“To be fair it’s been fantastic for a number of years but as more people realise what we do and how specialised we are, there are more of these top-end players knocking on our door.”
The profile of the industry has certainly been lifted by the big labels, according to the Campaign for Wool. It was formed to promote wool and encourage trade.
Chief operating officer Peter Ackroyd says: “I think the Chanel acquisition of Barrie in Hawick was a perfectly-timed statement that the luxury industry is seeking to be sure of the provenance of its expensive products. You can’t charge premium prices for goods of dubious provenance.”
And after years of being out in the cold as a functional rather than fashionable fibre, Mr Ackroyd believes things are really starting to change.
“We are at the cusp at the moment where I see things coming back, and I see it particularly coming back in Scotland because the current looks in fashion are very much Scottish.”
You can hear more about the business of wool on BBC Radio Scotland’s Business Scotland programme shortly after 06:00 on Saturday and 10:00 on Sunday, and later on the BBC iPlayer or by free download.
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