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The Scottish company transforming the global cashmere business

Mar 29, 2024

On the workroom floor of the Barrie factory in the Scottish Borders town of Hawick the buzz of industry reverberates through the air. This isn’t the sort of clunky, archaic din of a mill from an Elizabeth Gaskell novel, though. It’s the silvery, ambient hum of Japanese knitting machine shuttles darting to and fro, the low babble of hand sewers and linkers, and the hiss of steam from the washroom.

Although Barrie has been operating in Hawick since 1903, when the riverside town was the cashmere capital of Scotland, this factory was opened in 1971, the year the business relocated from across town. Its accordion-like glass roof — the mid-century industrial equivalent of a Victorian railway-terminus canopy — lets sunlight flood the workroom, allowing the diligent craftspeople beneath to see every purl, seam and stitch in the best possible light.

How this quiet, unassuming town of Devonian sandstone houses became a knitwear epicentre is inextricably linked to its location. “Folklore says that during the Industrial Revolution the Luddites were trying to get rid of the new mill machinery and so the Scots stole a lot of it from the north of England and brought it over the border, which spawned the Scottish knitwear industry,” explains Clive Brown, Barrie’s commercial and development director, who started in the washhouse in 1983.

Since its inception Barrie has manufactured for brands, starting with stockings then moving into classic knitwear for leading cashmere purveyors from Bond Street to Fifth Avenue. But in recent years it has shifted to a considerably more dynamic business model. Today it has the largest assemblage of Shima Seiki knitting machines in Europe, which can feed up to 40 different yarns into a single piece, making design possibilities limitless.

These Japanese-built machines work from mathematically complex patterns devised by full-time programmers at the factory who use graphic-design tools to translate the hand-sketches sent by the Paris-based design team into digital code. The garments can take more than ten hours to knit. “The Shima has exceptional capabilities and the software is extremely well written, helping us push our knitting further. It’s the Rolls-Royce of knitting equipment,” explains Craig Grieve, a machine programmer from Hawick who joined Barrie in 1986 as an apprentice working hand-operated flat-knitting machines.

This idea of traditional craft methods complementing new technologies is a common thread that runs through Barrie’s operations. Denise Brown, one of Barrie’s nimble-fingered hand sewers who has worked in the trade for 30 years, embellishes the knitted pieces to give each its own fingerprint. Learning the skill takes “18 months to two years — it’s a very precise skill”, she says. “But you’re always learning here. Every Barrie collection is different.”

After a midway quality-control check and the hand embellishing comes the washing, using local water drawn from the River Teviot, which because of its mineral content has a natural softening effect that has helped to make Hawick’s name in cashmere. The pieces are then dried and steamed into shape before further stringent checks. It’s a labour-intensive production cycle that is the antithesis of the mass-production models of far-flung lands.

This slower, more thoughtful way of working has been the area’s weakness and its strength. The industry was decimated in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Italian and Chinese markets adopted faster, mechanised methods that Hawick couldn’t keep pace with, resulting in the closure of many of the town’s mills. Barrie could have suffered a similar fate, but it was the Parisian powerhouse Chanel that helped to keep the lights on, commissioning the factory to produce a range of knitwear, including its iconic two-tone cardigan, in the 1980s. Chanel’s late creative director Karl Lagerfeld further bolstered this relationship when he joined the house in 1983. “Mr Lagerfeld said that Barrie was the best — it’s why we’ve always had this longstanding bond with the brand,” Brown explains.

In 2012 Chanel cemented its commitment to the Borders knitwear industry and bought the Barrie factory outright. For Chanel the buyout wasn’t about holding a monopoly on the fading skills of the region; it was about keeping them alive. Enshrined into the terms of the buyout was the stipulation that any brand could commission the Barrie factory to make its knitwear — even rival luxury houses. Today a host of leading lights in couture from Paris to New York entrust their designs to the Barrie factory.

With an abundance of cheap, generic cashmere on the market and growing consumer demand for individuality and quality, Barrie launched its own label in 2014. While it had flirted with its own essentials label decades before, this new brand has an entirely different concept, one that fuses Hawick tradition with cutting-edge innovation.

“We’re using heritage techniques but taking the art of cashmere knitting that step further. It’s not just simple cardigans and crewnecks — we’ve engineered knitted cashmere denim and shearling, and are bringing the DNA of the brand and legacy of Scottish cashmere to a wider global audience,” explains Augustin Dol-Maillot, who interned at Chanel when he was 16 and was appointed Barrie’s creative director by Lagerfeld. “Karl was amazing,” Dol-Maillot says. “He just had this natural instinct. He did things because he just felt it was the right place and the right time.”

Despite the economic downturn business is brisk — so brisk, in fact, that Barrie is actively hiring to fill a significant labour shortage at the factory. “In ten years we’ve grown our team by over 130 people and we could take on an extra 60 tomorrow,” Brown says. “Getting the right people with the right hand skills fast enough is difficult.”

For an industry that was on its knees a few decades ago this signals a bright future. What’s certain is that there are more than a few yarns left to Barrie’s story yet.