RIGHT now in Tuscany, a field of lavender-petaled teasels is ripening, stretching their spiny stems upwards so their cone-shaped heads bask in the hot Italian sun. They won’t be harvested this summer, but will be left till the flowers drop off and on through the winter till another long hot summer dries the spiky heads and, finally, they are ready to be handpicked.
Only the best will be chosen. Identical in shape and size, and still warm from the Tuscan rays, they’ll be packed into boxes and despatched to Scotland. There they will play a very special part in producing one of the country’s top luxury exports: cashmere scarves, stoles and blankets woven from the finest cashmere, silk and lambswool angora yarns, all made by Begg & Co of Ayr.
In an outwardly unprepossessing factory in the coastal town, Begg & Co is bucking the recession and expanding its operation, thanks to a rising demand for its high-end designs, and this month launches its own label. Inside the building the firm has occupied since 1903, endless brightly lit rooms are filled with humming machinery, spindles carrying yarn of every hue fly back and forth across looms, and acres of cashmere roll out to be washed, dried, fluffed up, trimmed, checked and packed, ready to be despatched to eager consumers across the globe.
The firm started making accessories in 1869 when Alex Begg founded the mill in Paisley, weaving the scarves that saw the town give its name to the pattern, before it moved south to Ayr. It has built its success on handmade quality accessories and prides itself on making the best finished cashmere in Scotland. The highly skilled workforce of 75 turns out a high-end product that is snapped up by some of the top names in couture, the cloud-soft scarves and shawls being sold under their own labels in return for Begg’s discretion. Now, however, the company is stepping out from the shroud of anonymity that cloaks its work for French, Italian and American fashion houses and rebranding as Begg & Co, with its own label and collections for men and women to be stocked in Fortnum & Mason, Trunk and Joseph, along with outlets from France to Japan. To do this, the talented in-house design team has been complemented by the creative input of design consultants Angela Bell of Queene and Belle, a cashmere specialist based in Hawick, and Michael Drake and his design agency, Man Drake. Drake is a long-established designer of men’s accessories and, as one of the founders of Aquascutum, came up with the distinctive tartan lining.
“Begg approached Angela and me because they felt they needed a bit of a shake-up, and the first thing we did was go through their classic colour range and rejig it,” he says.
Shaking up the colours was one thing, but then events took a literally distressing turn, with Drake suggesting putting the cashmere through the wash to get a more casual, slightly crumpled effect.
“It’s the first time they have washed the cashmere like that. These days you have to appeal to the high-fashion users as well as the traditionalists, and everyone in between, and people don’t always want things to look perfect. We also want to start using more new, finer yarns for light spring and summer scarves, to push in that direction. We’ve done the autumn/winter collections, which are now going into the shops, the spring/summer collections are just showing at trade fairs, and we’re about to start on autumn/winter 2014,” says Drake.
While Drake worked on menswear, Bell took on womenswear and introduced her quirky, contemporary edge with designs inspired by the North Indian Nagas tribe and their love of checks, as well as reworking the tartans and paisley for which the brand is so famous.
“I thought it would be really interesting to have that ethnic combination with something Scottish so it’s given an edge to something that’s traditional. We are also doing prints and putting a modern spin on them… thistles and paisley,” says Bell.
Drake and Bell were brought in by sales and marketing director Ann Ryley, who was taken on in 2012 to develop the new brand, and she’s delighted with their input.
“We’ve been playing around with finishes and design but keeping our heritage in there with the traditional patterns running through them, and of course we’re inspired by Scotland in terms of colour. We’ve manufactured for the major couture houses for many years and they appreciate our quality, and now we want to develop our own label too. We’ve a great design team and it’s nice to bring in two people with experience of seeing a scarf as part of an outfit. Also, they’ve both created their own brands too, so have valuable experience in that area,” she says.
In the factory, earplugs are a prerequisite as the looms hammer away, producing long rainbow rolls of cashmere, plain, jacquard and printed. The same raw materials, which start off as the fluffy hair from the belly of Kashmir goats, go into the scarves and throws being made for the big couture brands as for Begg & Co products. They are woven on the same looms by the same people, the only difference being the big brand logos. These are scarves that are destined to dangle around the decolletage of the world’s most fashion-conscious women, and Begg hopes that the new Begg & Co label will develop a similar cachet to consolidate the fan base that already appreciates their products for their quality.
Managing director Ian Laird, sporting a fetching blue Cottlea scarf and matching blue cashmere jacket, both by Begg, explains why the firm is so keen to build its own brand as well as continue to supply lovers of its classic range of accessories.
“It’s about pride, because we make these products and it’s important to put our own label on them. It’s about having control of our own destiny. We love having the big couture clients and working with them, but we don’t want to be solely dependent on them,” he says.
Begg is owned by Moorbrook Textiles, a wholly owned independent subsidiary of Lindéngruppen, a Swedish company whose fortysomething owner Jenny Lindén loves the product and wanted the Begg name to be known in its own right. Moorbrook Textiles has three divisions and two weaving mills in Scotland: Alex Begg & Company producing the cashmere scarves, Robert Noble which supplies tweed and tartan fabric for clients such as Walker Slater, and Replin Fabrics which develops high-performance technical textiles for seating and wall coverings on trains and aircraft – check out the purple seats next time you’re on the Heathrow Express.
Laird splits his time between the Ayr plant and Robert Noble in Peebles, which sells tweed and fabric to the likes of Hackett and Ralph Lauren and owns the rights to the fabric.
“Tweeds and tartans have really taken off,” says Laird. “The staff in both arms of the business are the link; their craftsmanship and ability to deliver quality.” Laird’s background has always been in manufacturing, with stints in coal mining machinery, food production, luxury yachts, then airlines. “I’ve always been concerned about what people want and how we can deliver it, giving them the very best we can,” he says.
“Our owners are very supportive and have been investing in the brand to the tune of a couple of million pounds over the last 18 months,” says Laird. “Last year our annual profit was £340,000 and the turnover £13 million. At a time when manufacturing is facing hardship, it’s good to have a company that believes in the long term. They’ve invested in machinery and production and we’ve been able to take on staff – design, marketing, production – and start apprenticeship programmes, because we have an ageing workforce and these are not skills you can teach quickly.
“We have been a bit silent about how good we are. We make a great-quality product with the best raw material – the world’s best cashmere – and have a great reputation. Now it’s time we told our story.”
Against the hum of looms whirring away, the buzzwords that float in the air here along with the occasional mote of escaped cashmere floating in a shaft of afternoon sun, are “expansion”, “investment” and “innovation”. New techniques to produce lighter, fresher designs are being developed and the company is looking to the future, in contrast to other players in the Scottish textiles industry who have not weathered the recession as well.
“When I started here years ago,” says Margaret Bell, a weaver who retired in 2011 and is back training younger staff, “it was all big thick tartan woollen blankets. We used to do knee rugs for the Queen; I bet she’s still got them. Now it’s fine, light scarves and we’re working more than ever. It’s not seasonal anymore.”
“We’ve gone from heavy blankets and rugs to light and technically complex designs. They’re difficult to weave, but we have a foot in the market no-one else has. We’ve got new kit and it’s generating more work,” says production manager Lorna Dempsey.
Nearby, the prized Italian teasels are being pressed into action on a machine that teases up the nap of the cashmere scarves into a ripple effect, a technique Begg says others copy but fail to master.
“Show me two scarves blind, and I’ll tell you which is ours,” says Dempsey. “Other people try to replicate the ripple effect but they can’t, because we take care of the detail. Nick, who is in charge of the teasels, complained about the ready-filled bars of teasels, because they weren’t uniform enough and were damaging the cashmere, so he started filling them himself, then he complained about the quality of the teasel. So we got a farmer to grow them specially for us. We do think about the details, which is what makes us better.”
Such is the importance of the teasels to the Ayrshire-based operation that they are now the logo of the brand that the company is launching, with a new website going online in the autumn to sell a curated collection.
“They’re what gives our Arran products the characteristic ripple finish, so they’re very important to us. They also have a slight look of a thistle about them to our international customers,” says Ryley. “We also looked at the name and felt Begg & Co had a feeling of the heritage, but sounds contemporary too. The date is in to emphasise our history, and ‘made in Scotland’ is hugely important, because so often things aren’t actually made here. Ours are – people think it stands for quality.”
“People abroad particularly look for ‘made in Scotland’,” agrees Laird. And not just abroad – Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall is a fan and was drawn to a Paisley scarf when she visited Peebles with Prince Charles last month, while Barack Obama wears one of their dark red cashmere numbers.
“We’re not celebrity-chasers though,” says Laird. “It’s nice to see the Duchess of Cambridge in one of our scarves but we’re not looking for endorsement. We make the world’s best product and if people appreciate it they will buy it. We don’t think people will wear it because somebody on Big Brother was wearing it, or even the future king. They will buy it because they appreciate its quality for themselves.”
On the new duck-egg-blue labels, the production processes are also explained: the dyeing process of the yarn for the graduated colours of the Nuance scarves, or that each of the diaphanous “Wispy” scarves requires five miles of yarn.
“If people are charged a lot of money they want to know why something’s special, so we tell them what’s gone into making it,” says Ryley.
Michael Drake agrees that it’s time this hidden gem of Scottish manufacturing started blowing its own trumpet and championing the skills of its workforce: “Begg are the best at doing what they do. Couture customers wouldn’t work with them if they weren’t so good in terms of quality, and it’s a mix of craftsmanship, heritage and innovation. They now have products to appeal to trendier shops, to the classic and traditional.”
As Laird dashes off to his other concern, Robert Noble in Peebles, he dons his blue cashmere jacket and proffers it for the touching.
“I’m used to being touched these days,” he laughs. “It goes with the territory. People want to feel the quality. I wear scarves a lot more now too.”
And with new production techniques that can produce ever more fine and fashion-forward products the consumer wants to wear all year round – not just to keep the knees warm at the Braemar Gathering – he probably won’t be the only one.
“When you look at an industry that hasn’t changed, it’s because they have plodded on waiting for the world to get better. But we have changed a lot and blended experience with new ideas. The past is the past, the future is the future,” Laird says.
Begg & Co is hoping customers will see it is offering them the best of both.
• Begg & Co’s own-label collection retails from £85 to £1,275. UK stockists include Joseph, Trunk (Marylebone, London) and Monocle,