Style: Knitting Wits
Richard hope’s rough and rugged hands suggest that the 63-year-old Scottish textile worker spends his 10-hour days wrestling with the heaviest machinery. But as he knits a delicate single-ply intarsia sweater on an antique hand loom, his coarse, burly fingers prove nimble enough to manipulate individually the finest strands of cashmere around the razor-sharp needles that line the iron base of the frame. Hope, who has plied this craft since the age of 15, is one of the few remaining knitters in Scotland capable of such work.
The type of loom that he operates became obsolete more than 75 years ago, when most manufacturers abandoned it in favor of automated equipment that can produce in minutes what a knitter such as Hope requires days to make. While Ballantyne utilizes mass-production machinery for many of its knits, it also continues to operate more than two dozen hand looms at its dingy, 85-year-old knitting factory in Innerleithen, Scotland, located a picturesque hour’s drive south of Edinburgh. “Other cashmere companies—such as Malo, Loro Piana, and Brunello Cucinelli—try to duplicate the look of a hand-knit sweater, but they do it with machines because they need the mass quantity to be profitable,” explains Tom Harkness, Ballantyne’s Scotland-based chief operating officer, who oversees the company’s 28 hand knitters laboring in the factory and the 15 working from home.
Intarsia, a decorative style of knitting that often depicts words or graphics and can incorporate as many as 30 colors, has been the hallmark of Ballantyne since the company’s founding in 1921. Intricate animal motifs, delicate florals, majestic family crests, and other novelty designs—many combined with the company’s signature diamond pattern—had been popular themes until the 1960s and ’70s, when the costly novelty knits became passé. Ballantyne operated in obscurity from then until recently, when demand for artisanal clothing, items that represent the maker’s heritage and offer exclusivity to the wearer, revived the popularity of fine, hand-knit sweaters, particularly those from Ballantyne, John Laing Cashmere, Murray Allan, Hawick, and other Scottish makers.
Ironically, hand-knit intarsia sweaters and the Scottish companies that specialize in them could well have disappeared altogether were it not for the Italians. Since the 1950s, Ballantyne has been a favorite cashmere brand among Italians smitten with English and Scottish fashions. In 2004, when Ballantyne’s then-parent company Dawson International expressed an interest in selling the financially troubled label, a group of Italian executives responded. Sensing that Ballantyne had the rebound potential of a Gucci or a Burberry, Alfredo Canessa and Massimo Alba, the founder and the creative director, respectively, of the successful Malo cashmere brand, assembled a team of Italian investors that included Ferrari and Fiat chief Luca di Montezemolo and Tod’s founder Diego della Valle to purchase Ballantyne for the bargain price of $35 million. Canessa, Alba, and Charme Investments (the Italian private equity fund headed by di Montezemolo’s 28-year-old son, Matteo, that now controls 70 percent of Ballantyne) already have invested $6 million more to resurrect the brand. The first step in that process was restoring and expanding the company’s production of hand-knit intarsias, which had earned the label its prestige.
A keen businessman who developed Malo into a $60 million business before selling it to the Italian company Ittieri in 1999, Canessa understood that for Ballantyne to grow it had to expand beyond knits and beyond Scottish borders. Subsequently, Canessa and Alba relocated the corporate office from Scotland to Milan and spent the next two years broadening Ballantyne’s offerings to include everything from Italian-made sportswear and outerwear to tailored clothing and footwear.
“One of Ballantyne’s biggest problems, especially in America, was that the brand was limited to only a few specialty stores and was no longer relevant to the luxury market,” says Canessa, who copied Gucci’s early distribution strategy by removing Ballantyne from U.S. stores for several seasons before relaunching the label last year. “Now we’re putting together Ballantyne shops in Saks Fifth Avenue, Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus, and Bergdorf Goodman, as well as developing stores of our own,” he explains. The company recently opened a 2,700-square-foot flagship in London, located, coincidentally, at 153 New Bond St., the same address that Ballantyne’s original store occupied in the 1960s. To produce the rest of the Ballantyne collection, Canessa formed partnerships with established Italian fashion houses Avon Celli (for machine-made knitwear), Ermenegildo Zegna (for neckwear), Bagutta (for shirts), and Mako (for tailored clothing).
Another priority for the Italians was addressing lingering issues with style and cut at Ballantyne, where, as with many Scottish and English clothing companies, adherence to tradition had precluded progress. Over the years, most of Ballantyne’s designs had grown stale and the fit appeared frumpy next to sleeker Italian silhouettes. Alba introduced slimmer cuts, especially in knitwear, and incorporated a modern palette of some 140 colors. The designers also created some elaborate treatments that combine the multicolored diamond pattern with motifs ranging from animals to automobiles. A knitting machine, which is best suited for simple, often repeating patterns, never could produce such complex designs.“It takes 18 months to two years to reach an adequate level of skill to work a hand intarsia loom,” explains Harkness, the COO in Scotland, whose knitters produce only 550 sweaters per week. In addition to maintaining the small mill in Scotland—one of the Italians’ few concessions to the firm’s Scottish heritage—Ballantyne established a school there to teach the craft and ensure its survival. “We recently accepted five students for six months, and at the end of the term we offered jobs to only two,” says Harkness.
Unlike many of its competitors, Ballantyne attaches the sweaters’ collars, cuffs, and waistbands by hand. “The product never leaves human hands until it is in the box,” says Harkness, adding that the company hand-tacks seams at key stress points, such as the underarms, and always cuts zippers to the length of a cardigan. “Most knitters buy standard 51-centimeter zippers, but they don’t look right in a 53-centimeter cardigan.”
Furthermore, Ballantyne uses single-ply cashmere yarns almost exclusively. These are finer than other yarns and therefore are more prone to breaking during the manufacturing process. “We could increase our production by a third if we did more two-ply yarns, because every person in the factory can do two-ply knitting—but not everyone is capable of doing one-ply,” says Harkness, noting that the head of a two-ply knitting needle is larger to accommodate the thicker yarn.
The delicacy and complexity of single-ply knitting account for the relatively high cost of Ballantyne intarsias. Prices start at about $1,100 for simple repeat patterns and can quadruple for more complex designs and custom orders. “Some of our most complicated patterns can take even an accomplished knitter such as Richard Hope as many as two days to make,” says Harkness, “and that is only for the front of the sweater.”
Ballantyne, through Glazer Imports