Hawick - the home of tweed

Ronald Kerr looks at the 200-year history of tweed and traces its origins to a mill in Hawick.

It is one of Scotland's great gifts to the world, the intricacies of its subtly coloured twists and yarns capturing the very essence of the land.

Tweed, that most versatile of textiles - often overlooked in the clamour to promote its higher profile cousin, tartan - is proving remarkably resilient as it approaches 200 years as a global brand. And in the Borders town of Hawick - which gave tweed its distinctive character and its name - that is a cause for celebration.

A renewed sense of purpose has reinvigorated tweed production in the town, thanks to the vision of two men steeped in the mysteries of warp and weft, who passionately believe in its future. Stephen Rendle and Alan Cumming started a tweed-making revolution 14 years ago enabling this venerable craft industry to reposition itself in a fiercely competitive global market.

Both graduates of the Scottish College of Textiles in neighbouring Galashiels, they had previously worked together at a major Borders fabric company. So when Stephen decided to set up his own company in 1998, specialising in sporting and estate tweeds, he approached Alan, a designer, to join him.

Their quest for suitable premises led them to Lovat Mill in Commercial Street, where the town's patterned cloths were first marketed as tweed.

A RICH HISTORY

The story of how tweed became an unsurpassable brand name nearly 200 years ago is part of Borders folklore and a key part of the cloth's history. The term 'tweed' was coined accidentally by a London cloth merchant who misread a label marked 'tweel' - the Scots word for twill - written on a consignment of cloth sent by the textile producer William Watson.

When the merchants placed their next order for more 'tweeds', Watson chose not to correct their mistake, adopting the word for his product, which has become a byword for quality the world over.

With Watson's factory eventually making way for a supermarket, its near neighbor Lovat Mill became recognised as the home of tweed. By the late 1990s, however, it looked as if Lovat Mill might go the way of Watson's empire. Run down, with outdated equipment and a half-empty order book, the prospects were dire.

Stephen recalls: 'I realised that the business had to make a huge change if it was to survive. That meant dealing with a small number of customers, but giving them exactly what they wanted.'

To achieve their goal, Stephen and Alan agreed that the skill and attention that had gone into the old textile designs were assets to be embraced.

LOOKING AHEAD

Today the renovated mill is a pleasing blend of old and new. A seemingly unruly assembly of flying pistons and arms dating from the early 1950s rattle away in a corner while, across the room, a computerized loom made in Germany weaves 500 threads a minute. Throughout the process, a worker checks every inch of tweed, correcting the flaws with painstaking precision.

The 21 employees produce around 190 estate tweeds, which include famous names such as Devonshire, Buccleuch and Westminster; several Army regimental tweeds, among them Britain's oldest, the Scots Guards; and a range of contemporary tweeds that retain the colour richness and appearance of traditional cloths. Historically, weight has meant warmth, weatherproofing and durability - but modern technology lets Lovat Mill weave hard-wearing, lightweight rain-resistant fabrics, containing Lycra, Teflon or nylon filaments.

"Diversity is good," says Stephen. "We might have a pattern that's a big success for a couple of years, and then tastes change. Some people might think we're all about fashion, but our appeal is our heritage."

Many of those traditions are unique to the company. Clearing the cupboards at Lovat Mill 14 years ago, Stephen and Alan struck gold when they uncovered an old set of designers' notebooks with black oil-cloth covers, dating back to 1880. They contained meticulous drawings for hundreds of designs, each annotated with instructions on how to perfect them. For anyone interested in textiles it was like discovering the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the old patterns have been recreated while others have formed the base for new ones, many of which are created as sporting estates change hands. ?Tartan is linked to families,? adds Stephen, ?but tweed is tied to the land and the cloth's designs reflect that. They are complex creations, incorporating anything from five to 40 individual fabric colours. On one estate, for example, we're working from photographs that capture its many qualities in the shooting season. We've been able to absorb its colours in the cloth - the grey slate of the roofs, the lichens in the walls and the tones of the hillsides. Tweeds do not have to be constrained by strict patterns in the way that the checks of tartans are. Combining colours is part of the designer's art, but the creators of new patterns have to play by all of the design rules as well.

"That's even more the case with the old estates, which have their own established tweeds. They are very particular about their orders and we're happy to oblige.

"These mirror the landscape too. Tweeds associated with some Highland estates might replicate the muted colour of the Grampians' rocky outcrops, while those linked to estates in the south of England can reflect the redder soils of that part of the world. But new or old," adds Stephen, "it's all about following in the footsteps of previous generations of tweed makers."

A poem called Chuckies on the Cairn, by the Scots bard Robert Garioch, has a particular resonance for Stephen. Garioch, having climbed to a mountain top, pauses to reflect on the two or three pebbles he is about to place on the pile of stones that marks the summit. Before leaving them there, he acknowledges that the cairn has been built by men mightier than him, who had carried weightier stones on earlier ascents. "I love that analogy," says Stephen, "because, really, we're standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us."

"Alan and I were privileged to have learned the craft from some great practitioners and we aim to equip and train the next generation of tweed makers. If we don't, then all of these skills will be lost.

"The industry in Hawick was hanging by a thread, but I believe that we have put it on a firm footing for the future."

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