Feature: Scotland Yardage

Critt Rawlings is not accustomed to driving on the left side of the road, which explains why the chief executive of America’s finest suitmaker, Oxxford Clothes, sometimes skips over a curb while doing 120 kph down Highway A7 on his way to Kelso, Scotland. Rawlings is determined to make the four-hour drive from Manchester Airport in three hours “to get there before the sun goes down,” he explains, not realizing that in midsummer in this part of the world, the sun doesn’t set until well past midnight—and even then it becomes only semi-dark for about an hour. “There’s a reason why they call this the land of midnight golf,” the manager of the palatial Roxburghe Hotel & Golf Course says after listening to tales of the perilous road trip over a glass of scotch offered upon our arrival.

As with golf and scotch, Scotland’s two main exports, tartans, Harris tweeds, district checks, donegals, and Prince of Wales plaids originated in this lush green country. And like golf and scotch, these bold, historical fabrics are experiencing a revival in a season when countrified elegance outshines flashy opulence.

Inklings of a renaissance emerged last fall when American and Italian suitmakers dabbled in plaid cashmere sport coats and three-piece tweed suits that sold surprisingly well. Visionaries in the suit business had no doubt that such looks were due for a comeback, which is why Rawlings and others braved the narrow, winding roads of Scotland’s fertile Tweed Valley in search of inspiration and authentic Scottish cloth for their fall 2002 collections.

Men who are fitted for custom or made-to-measure suits this fall will see the fruits of those pilgrimages in the myriad of fancy checks, Saxony cloths, and tweeds bearing the names of important Scottish mills: Reid & Taylor, Harris Tweed, Robert Noble, Johnstons of Elgin, Thrie Estaits, Holland & Sherry. Even ready-made sport coats by Belvest, Kiton, Attolini, Pal Zileri, Brioni, and Canali feature interpretations of these highly textured cloths, which typically pair unexpected color combinations with bold patterns that are throwbacks to another era.

While most suitmakers have culled fabric influences from 20th-century Scottish and English designs—as seen in Hollywood films from the 1930s and 1940s—most of the patterns on display this season actually originated 2,000 or more years ago. Tartans, for instance, date to the second century, when Irish Celts, rebels who called themselves Scots, began migrating to Scotland. These first Scottish clans—defined as “children of one fam-ily”—brought the brightly colored fabrics with them and later used them to distinguish family from foe.

Only 40 tartan families—with names such as Cameron, Macdonald, Mackinnon, and Sinclair—are registered with Scotland’s Lyon Court, which rules on rightful holders of hereditary titles. However, the less influential Scottish Tartans Society lists more than 1,500 tartans on its registry, while the online Scottish Tartans World Register lists over 2,800 tartans, with new variations of patterns and colors constantly being added.

Similarly, the rough-textured woolen tweeds, the Scottish word for twill, were first woven hundreds of years ago by crofters, or farmers, near the Tweed River, where an abundance of sheep in the local Cheviot Hills provided ample natural resources. These early weavings evolved into signature estate tweeds, sometimes called district checks. The significance of the tweeds was officially recognized by Great Britain’s monarchs in the middle of the 19th century, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert purchased Balmoral Castle and wanted to identify those who lived and worked there.

Like all estate tweeds, the Balmoral tweed is designed in the colors of the estate’s vegetation to provide camouflage while hunting. When used in combination, the Balmoral tweed’s dark blue, white, and crimson colors create a gray appearance that imitates the surrounding granite mountains of Aberdeenshire. It seems ironic that such loud, colorful tweeds were worn to be inconspicuous, but, in fact, they are quite effective at breaking up a man’s outline on a hill.

Because authentic estate tweeds are intended to be worn only by those who live and work on the corresponding estates or districts, a gentlemen’s agreement exists among Scottish mills never to reproduce a registered tweed for retail consumption. As a result, many fall suit fabrics that are referred to as estate tweeds are actually variations on a theme.

Checks, plaids, tweeds, tartans. The terms may seem difficult to decipher for those who have not studied Scottish textile history, but it all makes perfect sense to a Scotsman. “A tartan is associated with a family; a district check [or estate tweed] is associated with an estate,” explains Raymond Eagleson, managing director at Reid & Taylor, one of Scotland’s oldest (circa 1839) and most prestigious textile mills. “So, you can tell where a check is from, based on the foliage around Scotland.” What’s more, he adds, “Everything Americans refer to as a plaid, we call a check, because a Scotsman knows that a true plaid is actually a tartan.”

In addition to the distinctive, colorful patterns that these fabrics radiate, they offer a more practical, wearable quality than the fragile suit fabrications that have dominated for several seasons. “The one thing we see without question is clothing moving into heavier, more textured cloths,” says Rawlings, standing over a bundle of woolly vintage plaids and country tweeds unearthed from Oxxford’s 86-year-old archives in Chicago. “It’s a shame that in America we’ve all become so weight conscious,” he adds, pointing out that many of the extremely lightweight super wools that have been marketed as the ultimate in tailored clothing are also too delicate for repeated wear. By comparison, most of these newer cloths are loftier weaves capable of becoming sport coats that last a lifetime. “These fabrics weigh between 370 and 450 grams—which is lightweight compared to the heavy 800-to-1,000-gram Shetlands used in the 1930s and 1940s—so they are better for both practical and aesthetic reasons,” says Rawlings, who plans to resign on September 1 to represent the Scottish textile industry.

Even the Italians, whose modern mills decimated the Scottish textile industry at the end of the 20th century, are rediscovering Scotland’s distinctive materials. Massimiliano Attolini of Sartoria Attolini in Naples, Italy, made a quest to Scotland’s Johnstons of Elgin, a large cashmere mill established in 1797 that provided most of the fabrics used in Attolini’s fall collection. “The Scottish cashmeres are definitely heavier, but with lots more character,” says Attolini. “But you don’t notice the weight of the fabrics, because we are showing them in a completely unconstructed model with no shoulder pads and a very round shape, so the jacket is made to feel very light.”

Nevertheless, only a true brave heart would feel completely comfortable wearing one of Attolini’s burnt orange and green oversize check cashmere sport coats. The same could be said for one of Oxxford’s bold red-striped brown double cashmere suits from the company’s new Archive Collection, which was made from vintage-inspired fabrics developed during Rawlings’ Scottish sojourn. But fear not: Plenty of discreet and approachable versions of these same styles are available from both suitmakers in softer, subtler colorations.

One would think that all this talk of tweeds and tartans is proving to be a godsend to the Scottish textile industry, which watched its influence in menswear along with its profits disappear as Italian textile producers began developing lightweight alternatives. “Certainly we’ve seen a big increase in our business over the past 10 years, mostly because of the renewed interest in fine cashmere,” confirms John Gillespie, a textile designer at Johnstons of Elgin, which produces cashmere and cashmere-blend fabrics for Burberry, Hermès, Brioni, and Ralph Lauren. “Even though we’re still a very traditional mill, I believe part of the renewed interest in our products is because we’ve begun to experiment with less classic cloths like cashmere calvary twill and cashmere corduroy.”

Despite new fabric innovations and modest sales increases, much of the Scottish textile industry remains a skeleton of its former self. One hundred years ago, 189 mills dotted both sides of the country’s Tweed River, which is located in an area known as Borders because it begins about 10 miles north of England at Hadrian’s Wall, a blockade built during Roman times “to keep unruly Scots out of England,” says Eagleson. Today, the beautiful meandering river valley is home to only one mill, Robert Noble. The other survivors are a disenfranchised handful scattered throughout Scotland, from Edinburgh, Peebles, Inverness, Selkirk, and Aberdeen to the Harris Tweed industry as far north as Stornoway on the Outer Hebrides (see sidebar).

Certainly, the now-dominant Italian mills have no reason to feel threatened. “We produce about 6,000 pieces per year, and these cloths are only 50 meters on average [enough for about 17 suits each],” says Eagleson of Reid & Taylor, a 163-year-old com-pany that produces cashmere for Kiton, Escorial wool for Brioni, Super 180s wool for Oxxford, and Super 120s wool for Prada, the mill’s biggest client. “So we’re teeny-tiny in terms of world production. Then again, Rolls-Royce doesn’t make that many cars, either.”

Limited edition fabrics and the promise of exclusivity are two of the most compelling reasons why luxury suitmakers are spending so much time in Scotland these days. Another is simply the look and feel of the cloth itself. “The Italians are heavily influenced by the more classic English feeling, and that’s why they are looking to Scotland and England for ideas now,” explains Daniel Wolman, a U.S. sales agent for Kiton. Wolman says that the Scottish mills attract companies like Kiton because many of them use the old wooden shuttle looms that operate more slowly and produce finer cloth. Modern, high-speed metal machines, called rapiers, on the other hand, produce fabrics that are more suited for mass production. “The Italians like the finished fabrics they get from these older looms,” he explains, “but many of the old mills are not always innovative. So we have to work with them closely to get what we want.” In the end, says Wolman, nearly 50 percent of Kiton’s fabric offering this season will come from Scottish and English textile mills.

By contrast, a handful of mills—ranging from established larger mills such as Robert Noble to Thrie Estaits, a small, relatively new outfit specializing in estate tweeds—have recently invested in Italian looms to produce cloth more rapidly and at a more competitive price. “These new machines are capable of doing 600 picks [rows of thread] per minute as opposed to the old machines, which did 30,” says Gill Cable, head of design at Robert Noble, which weaves an unprecedented 15,000 meters of cloth per week, mostly for the home interiors market. “I’m convinced they come equipped with espresso makers,” she jokes.

Its output has enabled Robert Noble to become one of Scotland’s most diverse mills, manufacturing airline upholstery and cloth for riding gear as well as men’s suit fabrics. Adding to the company’s cachet is a vast pattern archive dating to 1890 and housed in an old Victorian water storage tower directly behind the mill.

Such archives hold considerable interest and value these days for suitmakers such as Rawlings, who spent several hours at Robert Noble during his visit to Scotland, perusing bound volumes filled with colorful vintage cloth swatches. Eventually he pulled from the books a vibrant wool plaid dated 1930, which will be rewoven in lightweight cashmere and added to Oxxford’s lineup of more than 75 vintage patterns for fall.

“Forty years ago, we used to educate the consumer to have variety in his wardrobe,” says Rawlings. “Because tailored clothing has been dominated recently by charcoal gray suits and simple patterned sport coats, the timing was right for a swing back to bolder plaids. They may not be right for everyone, but this move back to Scottish cloth ensures that the elegantly dressed man who loves clothes will always have pattern hanging in his closet.”

Boss Tweeds

A gentleman recently walked into Beverly Hills retailer Carroll & Co. toting a Harris Tweed sport jacket that he had purchased there 20 years ago. He wanted to know if the store could replace it. A year ago, such a request could not be met because no one was making luxury tweed. Now, if you are willing to pay the price, it can be done.

“We’re certainly seeing a revival of traditional clothing,” says owner John Carroll. “When I think of Harris Tweed, I think of a nice gray or brown Shetland herringbone with a center vent, which is a style that’s right up our alley. In fact, if you asked my father, who opened Carroll & Co. 53 years ago, he would say, ‘I put my kid through college with that coat.’ ”

This fall, the coarse, woolly fabric is making a comeback, though with a softer, lighter hand and a modern approach to color and pattern. Designers, including Lars Nilsson for Bill Blass and Vivienne Westwood, as well as luxury suitmakers such as Oxxford Clothes, have been drawn to the cloth’s limited distribution and, more important, its rich, historical provenance. “Most men are attracted to a fabric if there is a story behind it,” says Oxxford chief executive Critt Rawlings, noting that the history of Harris Tweed makes it a marketing executive’s dream.

Harris Tweed is the only cloth that cannot be woven in a factory. To be authentic, it must be hand-woven in the homes of farmers who live on the connected islands of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. A distinctive Orb mark on the inside label helps customers identify the real from the fake.

“Twenty years ago, every other house on the islands would have had a weaving shed,” says Ian Angus MacKenzie, head of the Harris Tweed Authority that now oversees the cottage industry. “Today, fewer than 400 out of an island population of 20,000 are weavers.” More than half of those work for brothers Kenneth and Derick Murray, whose Shawbost factory, Kenneth Macleod, picks up the fabric from the island farmers, and then dyes, washes, finishes, and ships the cloth to destinations throughout the world.

According to Kenneth Murray, the newest incarnation of Harris Tweed, known as clo mor, or big cloth, in the island’s native Gaelic tongue, is different from its predecessor because it is both softer and lighter—6 ounces versus the 12 to 14 ounces of the 1960s version. Furthermore, the traditionally solid textured cloth goes through a special washing process and now comes in patterns such as checks, plaids, and stripes, which he says make it “the softest, most colorful and fashionable tweed we’ve ever produced.” 

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