Letter to the Scotsman newspaper

April 2013

To Whom It May Concern

I am compelled to write this letter knowing that it will not change the fate of Caelee Mills (formerly Ballantyne Cashmere), which very sadly went into administration last week, shuting down production 225 years after it first opened. However, I publically wish to voice my great concern and dismay at the way in which another valuable asset to Scotland’s historical and cultural fabric has been allowed to disappear without a trace – leaving a gaping hole in our ever-vanishing textile industry and impacting negatively on yet another Scottish community. This is a community I have had the honour of knowing in my capacity as a director of a small-scale fashion label that produces in Scotland and sells internationally.This is happening at a time when Scots and the world in general are scrutinising our ability to survive independently. In this debate, the Scottish textiles industry can be seen as symbolic of the Scottish economy as a whole. In the textile industry I see a deleterious lack of government support.Scotland was and is a nation famed for its production of high-end knitted and woven textiles. We have produced, and continue to this day to produce, for all the major luxury fashion houses in the world, although this is often done anonymously. These high-end companies come to Scotland because our textiles embody a skill, an understanding and a quality that they wish to see in the fibre from which their products are made. We are not a fashion nation – we leave that to London, Paris and Milan. However, Scotland does have a role in the continued production of quality textiles; this is what we understand and what we do best.China is in the middle of an industrial revolution. Our industrial revolution happened so long ago that the Scottish textile industry finds itself housed in buildings that are not appropriate for business today; they are too costly to heat and run, and have no apprenticeships schemes to offer and so lack programmes of modernisation or long-term investment. I appreciate that we as consumers are at fault for wanting to buy clothing cheap. But if we saw the skilled process that a jumper goes through to be created we would not think its premium cost unjustified. The quality of our textiles transcends fashion. Fashion comes and goes, but a beautifully crafted jumper will always be needed and ours are renowned.Caerlee Mills was the last mill in Europe predominately to employ the specialist knitwear process of hand intarsia*. Some of the staff had worked there for over 40 years; we cannot buy, replace or pass on their knowledge once it has gone. I understand that the closure of Caerlee Mills has come about because of many factors. It should be emphasised, however, that they had substantial orders on their books. Tragically, they were unable to produce these orders as they could not afford to buy the yarn up front. That, coupled with an antiquated building that was too costly to run, equals redundancies and devastation in Scottish communities.A very different – and much more positive – story is the case of Chanel buying Barrie knitwear. Chanel have been taking over their French ateliers, famed for creating shoes, braiding and so on, because of their fear that once these businesses have gone there will be no-one skilled and experienced enough to do the job. Chanel understands the importance of investment in a skilled artisan workforce. As a Scot, I realise that we do not always appreciate and value our strengths until they have gone, to be appreciated elsewhere, if at all. So I salute the last standing textile companies – you know who you are! As world commerce and consumer patterns change one thing is for sure: unless government invests in and supports our struggling textile industries, very few will remain standing. China may have might, but we have history, skill and legacy.This is a sad time! There is no one person to blame here but a succession of unfortunate events: Beeching taking out the rail networks that serviced Dumfries and Galloway, the rise in yarn prices, antiquated buildings, a cash flow crisis, pension schemes not paying out, consumer patterns, competing industries worldwide, aviation … the list goes on. I don’t claim to have the answers, I only observe from the outside. My company, Atelier E.B., has done extensive research into the post-1930s Scottish textiles industry, and we have seen for ourselves the tragic scale of what has been lost – Singer, Pringle, Ballantyne to name a only few of the great companies that went to the wall – and in the short time we have been collaborating with Scottish textiles companies we have witnessed much negative change. It all hangs on such a fine thread.

Yours faithfully

Beca Lipscombe, Atelier E.B

*Intarsia is the Italian word to describe inlaid patterns in wood. It was Ballantyne that developed this same idea but in knitting, at first using simple Argyll diamonds then growing more bold, depicting everything from the blossom of a cottage garden to the pattern on a Persian carpet. One inlaid panel of an intarsia sweater takes a highly skilled craftsman up to eight hours as each thread must be laid over the needles by hand to form the intricate pattern. The design is built up following the directions on a chart, constantly changing from colour to colour, laying the yarn into the needles with great care and precision.