Thursday, 19 April 2012

Scotland's Knitters - as featured in 'Funnily Enough'

My time working in the fashion industry 

Sophie Neville

Occasionally I am asked if I ever did any modelling.  I have not, but there was a time when I worked in the knitwear business, apprenticed to my aunt, in truly medieval fashion. She was the primary British producer of hand-knitted cashmere which sold, wholesale, on streets paved with gold: London, Paris, New York, Tokyo.

The epicentre of Aunt Hermione’s knitting enterprise was situated in the stables of her rambling Georgian house above the council estates of Loch Lomond, designated an area of high unemployment at the time.  My apprenticeship was organised by the head of our family, Granny, who paid for my train fare. Whilst not exactly sleeping under the counter, I worked for the experience alone. Aged thirty.

Hermione Spencer Cashmere

I was first enslaved when Val the head seamstress went ‘off sick with depression’. Before leaving she explained how the business was managed.

‘Nothing’s actually made here. Hand-knitted garments arrive in the post from outworkers and wool for the next order is sent back with a cheque for the labour.’

Not too complicated. I started to help by weighing balls of cashmere for various consignments, seeing the activity as the dawning of a dazzling new career in the fashion industry. It was more difficult than I expected. Gloves for Polo Lauren had seven different colours in the pattern. Small amounts of valuable yarn had to be calculated and compiled. Incredibly complicated.

The cashmere jerseys that came in were stunning. I was amazed as they got bundled up, shoved in the washing machine and later hung up to dry on a pulley above the Aga in Hermione’s kitchen. Her dining room was full of cardboard boxes. Piles of garments in different colours and sizes covered the table, waiting for despatch.

My aunt was to be found in her office busy making designer-ish sketches whilst waiting for Bloomingdales on the phone and forecasting her fluctuating turnover.

‘The drawings are simply to impress the Regent Street buyers,’ she said. ‘I won’t use them for anything else. There is absolutely nothing artistic about the design of separates,’ she went on. ‘I just ask what will sell. If they say Fandango is the colour for next year, Fandango it will be.’

‘What are these buyers like?’

‘Oh, hysterical.  I love them all. They don’t love me though. They just want to know I’ll deliver.’  I was then instructed to sew labels on a pile of pale pink polo-necks so she could get an order off to Japan before Christmas.

I assumed that taking over the production would stretch my talents but found it just entailed dealing with a series of chatty knitters. They rang up non-stop. ‘Knitters in a twist,’ my teenage cousin called, wafting by.

‘Don’t let them talk for long,’ hissed Hermione.

‘Doo-n’t let your wee aunt leave me with noth-thing too doo over Christmas, noo.’

I was urged not to let them bully me. ‘They’ve no reticence, these ladies. They seem genetically pre-programmed to knit and get anxious if they don’t have any work. They are addicted to it. In fact they can quite persecute you for more.’

I learnt that there was a knack to keeping phone calls short. ‘You say: “OK – very gud. Bye.” as fast as you can and slam the phone down.’ I would never have dared to be so abrupt when I worked for the BBC.  People might have been offended and made a fuss about paying their licence fee.

Hermione said that the buyers could cut you short too. ‘Oh, when I was in New York I spent all day plucking up the courage to ring one designer. I eventually managed to speak to her and was busy explaining how each garment is an original, carefully knitted by hand, in the traditional Scottish way, when the woman leant back in her chair and said, “I don’t care if they’re knitted by monkeys, I don’t want ’em.”’

‘How upsetting.’

‘Didn’t matter. The people at Hermes liked them.’

My uncle went on to explain that a lot of the outworkers are looking after infirm relatives and cope with the frustration and endless, blaring television by knitting.

‘It can become an expensive hobby unless you’re commissioned. Their fee - ‘knitting money’- gets put in a jar to pay for treats and holidays.’ Hermione’s marketing spiel described this as ‘sustaining a traditional craft’.

Hermione Spencer Cashmere
Despite the banter in the workroom I was to learn how truely wonderful the knitters were. It was not just their skill that was highly valued. When we only had three days to get samples together for Yves St Laurent in Paris, the local ladies rose to the challenge and pulled out the stops. They never missed a deadline.

‘They are incredibly speedy and can easily complete a complicated cable pattern in a week,’ my aunt insisted. ‘There are over three hundred of them. The thought of them all knitting into the night is really quite terrifying. Actually one of them never sleeps; hasn’t been upstairs for twenty years.’ I didn’t believe her. ‘It’s quite true. She just lies on her sofa and snoozes for a couple of hours. There is a huge Alsatian dog so everything comes back hairy, but she’s a frightfully good knitter.’

Hermione seemed to have had all sorts of adventures with the knitters’ husbands...

‘I sat on one. He was lying in the gloom under a blanket on the sofa and I simply didn’t realise he was there. I went to visit another knitter and walked straight into the bathroom by mistake. There was a man in the bath. A big fat one.

'Another lady was unexpectedly late with her knitting. When I rang up she said, “Well my husband’s just died. I haven’t buried him yet, so I’ll do that and then get the cardi finished, OK?”’

The knitting orders kept me absorbed and I loved the feel of the cashmere, but the work had clear limits. The challenge was Hermione’s. It was her name on the label. The zenith of my internship was reached when I learnt how to wind wool electronically. Granny rang to see if I was being useful, earning my keep. When I told her a ball had just flown off the winder and hit me on the nose I found her surprisingly sympathetic.

‘Oh yes, I remember. All those wretched little balls of wool.  When are you going to South Africa?’

Sophie Neville in Hermione Spencer Cashmere
Sophie Neville in Hermione Spencer Cashmere
After 25 years Hermione sailed away from knitwear design, but I still have one treasured cashmere jersey. Hand-knitted in Scotland by a dedicated expert.

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