A Brief History of Wool in the Scottish Borders
The story of wool is inextricably linked to the Scottish Borders and has been integral to the economic, social and technological development of the region since the Monks of the famed Border Abbeys first farmed sheep in the middle ages.
Of the Abbeys: Melrose, Jedburgh, Dryburgh and Kelso, Melrose was the most prominent wool producer and by the close of the 12th Century had a flock of over 17,000 sheep. The Abbeys grew wealthy pursuing lucrative trade with Flanders and wool was exported through Berwick and across to Bruges. A significant Flemish population of merchants, trades and craftsmen settled in Berwick, bringing with them skills in weaving and textile production that contributed to the emerging textile economy as the immigrant population moved inland to other Borders towns.
When the Abbeys were destroyed during Henry VIII’s Reformation, raising sheep became the business of private Farmers, but otherwise this largely rural, cottage based system remained until the mid-18th Century when several key developments converged that would forever change the face of the Borders’ wool trade – quite literally.
The Borders Agricultural Society, formed in 1813 under the Stewardship of the 5th Duke of Roxburghe, led initiatives to promote “the best stock of different kinds (and) discoveries in agriculture.” Out of such enlightened thinking came a new breed of soft, thick-fleeced Cheviot sheep to replace the rougher coated Black Face herds.
Concurrent with the trend for agricultural innovation, the Industrial Revolution brought mechanisation and steam power. What had been a rural economy became one of Britain’s fastest growing industrial cultures. By the 1870s there were 250 woollen mills in the Borders, representing over 40% of Scotland’s factory labour force.
The Borders towns of Melrose, Hawick, Langholm, Selkirk and Galashiels had all that was needed to power this unprecedented boom; pure, fast flowing rivers to power the mills and wash the wool, excellent transport links to Edinburgh, Carlisle and the South, especially after the arrival of rail in the mid-1800s. Plus an unending supply of high quality Cheviot wool grazed on the rolling Borders hills.
Trends in Victorian fashion for Tweeds and Tartans supported this boom, led by prominent figures such as Sir Walter Scott, of Abbotsford and Queen Victoria herself.
Later, the 19th Century brought imported cashmere and by the turn of the C20th the region had established its international reputation for luxury yarns and knitwear. Each boom has its entrepreneurs and the great names of this era resonate to this day: Robert Pringle (1815), William Lockie (1874) and Walter Barrie – Barrie Knitwear (1870s).
In the 1930s Otto Weisz designed the cashmere twinset for Pringle, perhaps the most iconic knitwear combo the fashion world has ever known. Demand for Scottish knitwear rocketed and big name fashion houses beat a path to doors of the Scottish mills. The wonderful film above, by the British Film Council documents this era of the Borders Wool trade. The film is an absolute gem, shot by iconic cinematogrpaher, Jack Cardiff a man more used to filming Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn and the stars of the golden age. The Borders never looked so good and the vintage footage or Princes Street is worth waiting for.
Today the evolution of synthetic materials and the abundance of cheap overseas manufacturing have led to the closure of many of the original mills. However wool continues to beat at the heart of the Scottish Borders, socially, economically and technologically.
The region retains a world beating reputation for handcraft and skills, learned and inherited over generations, for design excellence and luxury woollen knitwear. Demand is growing in developing economies and throughout the Scottish Borders many mills do more than just survive, they thrive.
Technological advances and e-commerce allow a Scottish Borders based businesses like A Hume, who have worked with many of these historic mills since we first began trading, to bring their products directly to consumers all over the world.
In a global economy a niche market for luxury tweeds and knitwear represents a sizeable turnover.
Recent figures released by the industry put the value of turnover at £950million, on track to achieve 50% growth in exports by 2017. International, luxury brand Chanel’s purchase of Barrie Knitwear in 2012, underscores the general upward trend for niche luxury woollens.
So, moving into the 21st C it seems there is still demand for Scottish Borders wool so long as we protect traditional skills, continue to innovate and invest, and pursue new markets with the same vision and determination as the 12th Century Monks at Melrose.
A Hume looks forward to playing a part in this initiative and the continuing story of wool.