Ta-ta tartan, bonjour haute couture: Scotland's textile trade reinvents itself as a purveyor of luxury goods


Laura Chesters
Sunday 02 February 2014 01:00 GMT
Harris tweed
Harris tweed

The idea that Scottish haute couture is confined to kilts, woolly jumpers and "see you Jimmy" hats needs updating. The nation's booming rag trade is starting to rival the economic powerhouses of North Sea oil, whisky and high finance.

New figures have revealed that the textile industry is thriving north of the border, based on high-value luxury goods. The sector has recorded a 30 per cent rise in exports since 2009 and now sells £375m worth of exports annually – hitting a 2015 target early.

Cathy Black, head of textiles at Scottish Enterprise, said the clichéd image of tartan was out of date because the Scottish textile industry now designs, makes and exports everything from teabags to heart valves as well as luxury fashions for French brands Chanel, Louis Vuitton and Hermès. "This isn't just about green woolly jumpers. The nature of the industry has changed and instead of volume we have focused on quality. Innovation has been the key and the high-end market is our focus," she said.

Expertise in cashmere, tweed and Gore-Tex, as well as wool and lace manufacturing are all found in Scotland. Technical textiles used in airline and train seats, hotel rooms and the interior design industry are also big business. Brands that use Scottish fabrics include BMW, Disney, British Airways and Gucci.

Alex Salmond visits Barrie Knitwear

Big export markets have been the United States, France, Italy and Germany. Sales in Asia are steadily growing with Japan a big consumer. And sales to China are set to reach a record high, according to HM Revenue and Customs, with exports reaching £9.7m in the first nine months of 2013. Scottish cashmere and wool is sought after by the world's top designers. In 2012, Chanel bought Hawick-based manufacturer Barrie Knitwear.

James Sugden, who has worked in the industry for 40 years and recently joined his daughter's brand, Rosie Sugden Cashmere, expects this year's export figures to be even stronger. He said: "The industry really is on the up. From weaving, spinning, sewing and knitting – we really are growing. I think Scotland is following the Italian pattern where small businesses really can thrive."

But Sugden warned the key to longevity is training, apprenticeships and the passing on of skills. Many of the businesses in Scotland have hundreds of years' experience. Morton Young and Borland, whose lace curtains have appeared in ITV's Mr Selfridge, has been making Scottish lace and weaving madras in the Irvine valley since 1900 and now exports globally. Meanwhile, Fife-based Scott and Fyfe, established in 1864, manufactures items as diverse as car airbags and tennis nets. And Johnstons of Elgin, founded in 1797, makes cashmere for luxury-goods groups as well as its own line.

Johnstons' chief executive, Simon Cotton, said: "Lots of new brands are coming to us because they want British products. Scottish cashmere has a particular reputation and is unique."

Harris Tweed, worn by celebrities from Matt Smith to Madonna, has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years. Harris Tweed Hebrides reported orders up by 25 per cent in 2013.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in