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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Hello, my cowl arrived today and I had to write to you Kate to tell you how lovely it is, the colours, the quality, the way it sits on me, the warmth, the softness…I sound like a walking advertisement…but really its so beautiful. Well done. Now I’d like the red one! Thank you, Claire
HURRAH! I’m really pleased you like it!
I have some idea of what is involved in this process, I used to work for a company here in New Zealand called Weft Knitting Co. They knit merino/possum yarn into jerseys on machine and I worked in the finishing department doing hand sewing on necklines mostly. It’s amazing just how many steps there are in something like that. After 10.5 years working for them I finally called it a day, the hand sewing was impacting on my postural health and if I wanted to continue knitting/spinning/weaving/sewing for my family I had to stop doing it for them.
Can’t wait to see what you’re getting made up, and I hope you’re having fun!
yes, I think its the sheer number of separate processes that astounds me about these things. And I can well imagine how that kind of work takes a toll on one’s body!
Kate, I have been following your blog for a while now and you are doing really a great job, the way you explain thing is awesome. It would be a pleasure for me to invite you to my sewing community if you have time and interest.
Interesting to see the girls on the linking machines. I was a collar linker years ago.We mostly did work for M&S. It was a skilled job and we earned good money on piece work. We also had linking machines that had 2 swinging chairs where 2 girls could work together. One did the running on and half of the neck and the other did the second half and the turning over. This way the machine could be running continuously. It was a lovely working atmosphere. Good friends and happy days. Incedently it was men who did all of the cutting of the garments.
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Hello Kate…gee , you are one busy lady..so full of new and wonderful ideas, and actually putting them into action..you are making up for lost time trifold !!!…your snoods look so beautiful, and am looking forward to a peek at that new yarn
So happy that you and Tom seem so content and are busy exploring life adventures in creativity
Thinking of you , best, pat j
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Ooooh, I can’t wait to see (and perhaps wear one of) your designs! I visited Hawick (still can’t pronounce it correctly) as few years ago with my Scottish hubby. It is sad that so many mills are now shuttered with production overseas. I’ve notice many clothing tags now state, “Designed in Scotland” but are not made there. We bought two gorgeous cashmere jumpers from a wee shop from a mannie who still produces garments right there on the high street. I can’t recall which mill he worked in for 30+ years before opening his own shop. His wife does all the ‘sewing up’ on her linking machine. It was exciting to watch them work. I must go back and visit again.
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Thank you so much for sharing this story and of course, Tom’s gorgeous photos. Like you, until I began to knit, I did not think much about what went into making my clothes, except for the three great quality cardigans my grandmother purchased for me from someplace similar to Lockies over 35 years ago. The tags that had the name of the person, Betty, who finished each sweater have faded, but I recall that just knowing that she carefully made sure each seam was strong and straight. the collar lay flat, the buttons would not easily come loose, those details made those garments more special.
I am 50 and American. Now it is hard to find garments like that. It is not always price that guarantees us this kind of craftsmanship and care, so much couture is made in sweatshops and is not well made or fitted to each size. People seem to choose quantity over quality, to the point that companies like Lockies cannot afford to survive. It breaks my heart.
I am so pleased to get a peek into Lockies and your wonderful new project! Like your Buachaille, it is wonderful to see all the amazing people, sheep and tools that go into making the products that you put your name on. I wish you you much luck and cannot wait to hear and see more!
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Interesting article. I also sew some of my clothes so I can choose my own materials and what flatters me but it always makes me wonder how little we value the ‘making’ of these items as a society. There is a lot of skill going in to producing clothing whether hand knit it or part machine knit or machine sewed. Some people appreciate and value quality and will pay for it, others will choose to spend their money on other things and some just can’t afford to.
I adore knitwear for it’s ease in designs and wearing and I soooo appreciate hearing about the effort involved. Great story and thanks for the inside scoop ;)
Kate, once again you have shown the world of knitters and creative minds how special garments are made with love and the need for quality. I just keep thinking about how this manufacturer must have strained and grown to keep up with the fast pace of the garment industry. How did they maintain their sanity, pride and perseverance let alone financial status? I am in awe of the huge machinery, the individual sewing stations and the fact that there are windows for the seamstress so she is not subjected to a dingy, dank basement atmosphere. If we all decided we just didn’t need a change of cheap or expensive fashion every 6 weeks, how less stressful and how much more finances could go into our educations, travel, creative supplies and care of our planet. Your designs will help this wonderful manufacturer to keep producing quality knitted garments. Love the pictorial journey that Tom is providing for us all. Makes me want to visit Scotland and Ireland more and more. Joanie
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How much of the disregard the making of clothes, and knitwear in particular, is held in is due to it being seen as ‘women’s work’ and therefore of lesser value automatically.
That and the thought that ‘my Gran does that’, thus the thought of it being easy. Anyone can knit. Of course not everyone knits well, as you point out – the finishing and blocking etc.
Besides which, how much of the devaluing of garments is that they are largely machine made, therefore apparently of ‘low skill’ input? (yes, well.)
That and the Fashion industry keeps pushing us to get ‘new’, ‘this season’, ‘up to date’. As with so many other industries – produce something slightly less than the best, sell it cheaper, in bulk, and re-sell it often.
And don’t get me started on Brand Labels. Why should I pay so much more for a little crocodile, or a tick or two interlinked letter ‘c’, or a man playing polo? Surely they should pay me for advertising their brands?
Whatever, looking forward to seeing what you’ve come up with. And glad that there is still at least one firm in Scotland which still keeps the skills and attention to detail going.
I have also become fascinated with the idea of processes, with the almost geological layers of action and knowledge that underlie even basic levels of making. This is ongoing with cooking (starts with soil) and knitting (starts with sheep) but recently I’ve been obsessed with willow weaving. Coates Willow, in Somerset, who do every stage of the process themselves, from planting the will to weaving the baskets and burning the willow to make charcoal, have a greta film on their website ( http://www.englishwillowbaskets.co.uk/about-us ) if you are interested.
I’ve also become obsessed with the idea of processes, of the almost geological layers of of action and understanding that have to be gone through before anything can be made. This is on-going with cooking (starts with soil) and knitting (starts with sheep). Most recently I’ve been captivated by the process of willow weaving. Coates Willow in Somerset, where they carry out every process themselves from the growing of the willow to the weaving of the baskets and burning of willow to make charcoal have a film on their website http://www.englishwillowbaskets.co.uk/about-us if you are interested.
I very much enjoyed reading this post and seeing the great photos that accompanied it – it makes me proud to have such traditional skills in Scotland today.
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What a great post and set of photos. I went to Shetland thinking I’d never buy a machine knit sweater, but after touring the Jamieson’s of Shetland factory in Sandness, I too was amazed at the skill and the number of processes that go into a garment and how much of that still involves physical and skilled labour. I had somehow naively thought it all just went through a computer and a machine. I value that “machine” knit cardigan that I bought even more after getting an understanding of all its construction stages. Really looking forward to seeing KDD Originals.
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A timely reminder about how much work really goes into something most of us carelessly pull on and off! I have just been a steward in the Open Art and Craft section of our state wide agricultural show and one of the categories in knitting and crochet says “creative”. There were some interesting entries but they would still be amazed at how much work goes into even just the yarn they were using. Looking forward to hearing more!
Fascinating! Thanks for sharing all these details, so much more is involved in producing high quality products than we usually imagine. Pretty sure your knitwear line will be of the same high quality you insists in in all your projects.
What fabulous old machinery, only as good of course as the very skilled men and women who carry on the process and traditions. How wonderful that you can keep it all locally made…
I think of a machine knitted garment I might buy in a shop – I picture noisy metal machines making it in some sort of insolation. I’ve imagined machines doing everything from casting on to folding the finished items and stuffing them into their packaging ready for shipping. I look at the photos in this post and what strikes me most are all the hands – all different hands but all touching these garments. Never have I considered the amount of input dedicated workers have in the production of the machine knitted garments you buy in a shop
Kate, this is so exciting. Reading through your post and feasting upon your photos was a walk down a parallel memory lane. I’ve had a lot of similar experiences and discoveries when working with Eribé and Di Gilpin – visits to gorgeous factories where you see firsthand the skills (understatement!) and care that go into the creation of these “machine-made” (but really hand-made, as you’ve said) garments, from yarn to finished piece. I miss the smells and the clatter! I’m still working in knitwear and with knitting machines, but with completely different materials and product. I love what I do but am very glad to regularly revisit the memories of what got me here. Thanks so much for sharing this lovely labour of love; I cannot wait to see more!
All the best, Kristen xx
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Kate, I found what you have written and shown us here so well done, and hope that it will encourage all who see your post to think a bit more about all the sorts of daily interactions they have. (Not just about beautiful yarn and knitting, but also about any time in which one meets with another, across a counter, or across a desk, or across all the connections the web allows us. It’s truly doubly grand to gain some appreciation of the other, to find a way to imagine walking in that other’s shoes, knowledge, accumulated experiences.)
I am particularly aware, in the current political environment over here in the States, of what not taking time to see the world through other’s eyes can cause.
Hoping that you won’t think that this comment has gone off topic.
Best wishes from a dedicated hand knitter with many other interests accumulated through my 72 years. xo
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What a fantastic storyline Kate, I found it truly amazing and the photography as well as the write up explains everything, every tiny aspect of this wonderful business kept alive for so many years by dedicated staff , to their trade.
Thank you as always
Kate….this is very interesting and impressive. I love to see every aspect of the process.On a much tinier personal scale appreciation of quality is why I do all my sewing on a Singer 221 that is nearly 100 years old and sews beautifully.
What a wonderful post! Great photos, too.. I am so happy for you to see the production of your designs happen in front of your eyes…
I love how the old machinery is still going strong & that it hasn’t been scrapped just because it is old. There is such beauty in the old metal and paint-peeling woods of the beautiful stone building. Tom’s pictures give us the feeling of the place & its people. Can’t wait to see the new things that come from all that history & knowledge.
Wow, so exciting and what a process. Fabulous photos.
Totally unrelated (kind of, unless it’s Lockies-produced) — dying to know more about the blackbird knitted cardigan in the 12th photo from top. I’ve never seen anything like it before. (Black nail polish to match looks fab too!)
The birds on the cuff caught my eye, too. Lovely detail.
That cardigan is from primark … hardly a good advertisement for the industry but the workers can wear what they like I suppose
Congratulations, you and tom continue to amaze. Simply can’t wait to see what is in store to delight the eye next.
Looking forward to seeing the end products! Not only beautifully hand made, but apparently made by beautiful hands with fabulous manicures!
That was VERY impressive……so much we take for granted and good on all those Focused workers! Thank you for taking us into this world.
Don’t keep us all waiting too long Kate!
What did I ever do without you! I’ve learned so many new things about your part of the world, knitting, yarn and now commercially making garments. Tom’s photography has also added to my knowledge and Bruce makes my heart warm.
Now I am so excited to see the fruits of your new adventure.
Would really like to have something designed by you and made by them….
How exciting to see all your new work!!
I love factories! Such amazing intricacies and expertise and such excellent engineering. I am a you tube junkie for all those old manufacturing reels. I watched one on hand printed wall papers and The DMC thread factory in France recently. Such dedication to precision and colour.
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lovely article — looking forward to seeing
The lines! 🙏
I’m very excited to see your designs!
Fascinating article with photos! When are you ever going to tour the States? We’d love to have you as a guest speaker at our Guild.
Wow. Great legacy. I’m in the states and not heard of Lockies. If there’s a piece I can afford from them I’ll think of all the hands that went into making it each time I see it. And take better care of it as well!
Whatever these are, I predict them flying out the KDD shop. Looking forward to seeing them and to touching the new milarrochy yarns.
Oh my, Can’t wait to see what is on the cards!!