making stuff (at Lockies)

One thing you can say about knitting: it really makes you think about the many different processes that producing textiles involve. For example, prior to becoming an obsessive knitter, I had never really considered blocking a woollen garment (with water or with steam) . . .

. . . nor had I understood what a crucial final step this was in the production of a garment, or the genuine difference it might make to the finish and sizing of a piece.

The more time has gone on, and the more I’ve become involved with different kinds of making — most recently, in making yarn — the more my respect for those who work at the manufacturing end of this industry increases. Just as knitting a cardigan lends you a greater appreciation of the labour that a garment might involve, so designing a humble skein tag, choosing paper stock and string, attaching a dyelot sticker to the skein tag and (finally) attaching several thousand tags to skeins, might prompt a different kind of understanding of the meaning of both skeins and tags. Speaking personally, my own experience of making yarn means I can never now look at a garment tag in a shop without thinking of the how and where of its design and the hands and processes that attached it. And that’s before I even start to think about what went into the manufacture of the garment behind the tag.

I suppose what I am saying is that commodity fetishism is not an option when you become involved in making stuff. To the hand-maker or manufacturer, commodities simply can’t disguise the processes of their production and the human face — or hands — behind every object are always somewhere in ones mind.

I think this is a highly positive thing. Makers of all kinds are continually prompted to reflect on provenance and process, and because they are aware of the value of human labour and materials, might be (as I am very frequently) appalled at the cheapness of clothes, or food.

I’ve been reflecting on the implications of making stuff even more of late, as I’ve become involved in a different kind of design and manufacturing: creating my own small knitwear line.

To do this, I’ve had the pleasure of working with William Lockie – a family-run company which has been producing top-quality knitwear in the Scottish Borders since 1874. The Teviot valley has for centuries been famed for knitting and weaving, yet Lockies is now one of only a handful of companies that remain in Hawick, supporting local skills and traditional methods of production.

Lockies operate from the same mill buildings in which they began in the late nineteenth century. Here, over a hundred local people are employed, some of whom are the second or third generation of their family to work for the company (including Rachel Nuttall, Lockies’ brilliant sales manager, who has handled every stage of what’s been a new process for me with a consummate professionalism which I’ve very much appreciated).

While the Scottish knitwear industry has sometimes struggled over the past couple of decades under global pressures of price and volume, Lockies have continued to thrive because they don’t compromise on quality (using only the very best yarns and materials) and simply because they just do things really well.

Perhaps, as a hand-knitter, you consider that a garment or accessory that’s partly been produced by a machine has ceased to be hand made?

Well, my experience of working with Lockies has reinforced for me how very emphatically this is not the case. At Lockies, beautiful knitwear is being produced by exceptionally skilled hands every single day.

Do you want to hear a little more about what went into creating my new line?

My labour as a designer was only the very start of the process. I used some of my favourite hand-knit patterns as the basis for creating several charts and swatches, and then produced some specifications as to preferred colour and dimensions.

A skilled technician produced new charts from mine, helped me to think about gauge and yarns, and began work on some initial prototypes.

Some samples turned out to work much better than others as some charts that I’d created did not translate as well as I’d imagined to their new context. We then also had to think about the final finish of the fabric: natural yarn shades (as opposed to those which contain a lot of dark-coloured dye) can wash and wear rather differently.

The prototypes were used to test the washing and finishing process. As they do with every customer, Lockies worked very carefully and precisely to ensure the colours, handle, and quality of the knitted fabric were exactly as I’d wanted.

Then it was time to think about finishing (the colourwork pattern had to match and be continuous, and I wanted a particular seam to have a neat, corded appearance that did not interrupt the design).

Have you ever seen what’s involved in linking a product that’s been knitted at a really fine-gauge? It is pretty incredible.

The focus and precision that’s required for this work is really impressive.

When we were all satisfied with the samples, my designs were approved to go into production.

It has been fantastic for me to be able to drive down the road to visit the factory where my designs are being made, and to see more of what goes on.

. . . to learn much more about the different processes involved in knitwear manufacturing (and to encounter some extraordinary technology that still has not been bettered)

Have you ever considered how a collar adds another highly involved process to a garment?

Or thought about how the skilled labour involved in buttonholes obviously makes cardigans more costly to produce?

I wonder if you realise how many times good knitwear is checked and re-checked, then checked again in an enterprise like Lockies? How far quality control is written through every single stage of every item of knitwear that’s produced there?

Through my involvement in this project, I’ve been extraordinarily impressed by the skills and knowledge of all those who work at Lockies.

And feel proud that something I’ve designed has been made here, in this mill, in Scotland, with these hands.

I’m excited to be able to show you what we’ve made at Lockies very soon!

Thanks to Tom, as always, for photography.

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