The diamond standard: Pringle proves its proud design heritage

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I find it difficult to locate the Pringle of Scotland mill in Hawick, an imposing factory once at the centre of the town's knitwear production. But when I spot a pair of silver-haired women with carrier bags overflowing with Argyle sweaters, I know I'm heading in the right direction.

• Pic: Jayne Emsley

For many of Hawick's older residents, their memories of the town are wrapped up in Pringle where, one tells me, "there was a time when you could just walk in and get a job straight away". Today those memories are being jogged as Pringle of Scotland holds its first Day of Record; an invitation to anyone with old pieces of Pringle, photographs or stories about the 195-year-old brand to come along, enjoy a coffee and a cream bun and help the company to fill in the gaps in their archive.

Also on hand are students from London's prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. The group of final year students from the fashion history and theory course have been given the task of putting together an archive for Pringle of Scotland. They're already off to a great start, having dug out various pieces which were simply lying around the mill, from a long red coat to knitted underwear.

Today however, they're hoping to bulk out the archive with stories and photographs, and if they find a few exciting garments, they'll be making offers to their owners to buy them back for the archive.

Pringle of Scotland is the ultimate in "heritage" fashion brands, with a history stretching back nearly 200 years, but found itself floundering in a sea of golf jumpers by the end of the 20th century.

In the past few years, however, the brand has been rescued, by creative director Clare Waight Keller, who came on board in 2005, and chief executive Mary-Adair Macaire, formerly of Chanel, who joined in 2008.

Arriving at a time when Pringle had largely abandoned its knitwear past, Macaire made it clear that Pringle's knitwear heritage is the company's strongest asset, and will be at the centre of future collections. Compiling an archive is key to such endeavours, which brings us to quiet Hawick on a sunny Thursday morning.

The place is packed. Some people are laden with knitwear. Others have come empty-handed to meet old friends and reminisce.One trestle table is covered in old photographs of the factory's heyday in the mid-20th century and groups of retirees huddle round it eagerly, discussing the old colleagues they see in the pictures. Rhona Millar from Galashiels - who worked as a collar binder for Pringle for 15 years from 1965 - shows me pictures of her colleagues hard at work, meeting the Queen and modelling in a fashion show.

One wall is plastered with iconic advertising images spanning the company's history right up to the present-day campaign featuring actress Tilda Swinton. Two former workers spot a picture of a beautiful 1950s made-to-measure ladies suit which, they recall, was made available to all Pringle employees at a huge discount.

Some people have come from as far afield as Aberdeen. They tuck into cakes as they examine rails of cashmere, and queue patiently to have their knitwear photographed for posterity. They coo over each others' pieces, spot old familiar faces across the room and tell their stories to the enraptured Central Saint Martins students.

Margo Baird from Hawick began working for Pringle in 1969. "I started out as a cutter before moving into quality control," she says.

"Back then Pringle was such a big part of the town. It was a good time and we had some good laughs. It feels sad today that those days are gone. I've brought an Argyle sweater with me. The quality is wonderful and it feels like new. I've not worn it for 20 years and I was going to sell it on eBay before I heard about this. It's all really bringing back memories."

While she waits, Richard O'Mahony from Central Saint Martins College talks to a woman about four bright golf jumpers she's brought in. Then he gets very excited about a black sweater from the 1950s with a white collar detail.

Aspiring model Lois McCredie, 17, has come in with her aunt, bringing the sweater, as well as pictures of her grandmother Dorothy Blakeley - one of the first models for Pringle - wearing it.

"It's amazing to see all these little connections appearing, and to hear the stories behind everything," says O'Mahony. "There has been a great breadth of people visiting today, from ex- employees to people who just love the brand. It's amazing how loyal a lot of people have been to this company. It's this oral history which really helps us to put together a very layered archive that tells a story."

"So far we've had plenty of old photographs as well as cuttings and other bits and pieces," adds Central Saint Martins student Harry Jones. "We expected, hoped, that people would turn up, but this is just amazing. This is the first time that we've had the opportunity to do something like this as students so it's a great learning experience for us. Today, our aim when it comes to knitwear is really, the earlier the better.We'd love to find a really, really old twinset, since that's what Pringle are really famous for."

Some of the most exciting finds of the day come from Edinburgh sisters Caroline Anderson and Valerie Fraser, who collect Pringle and sell it on eBay. Everyone gathers around one of their beautiful 1960s twinsets, in shades of chocolate cashmere. "We have no connection to the company; we're just really passionate about Pringle," says Anderson.

"We've worn it since the 1950s and it's second to none when it comes to quality. The shape is always wonderful and it really holds its shape. It washes really well too, and the designs are so classic."

Watching everything unfold is Pringle's Clare Waight Keller. She's responsible for the designs we see on Pringle's catwalk at London Fashion Week each season and the archive will serve as an important design tool for her in the future as she dips into it for reference.

"Because Pringle was the biggest factory in this area, there's a sense that the people who have worked here over the years were really like family," she says.

"It's hugely important for us to keep up that connection with our heritage. So often brands get bought over and moved around and they lose their soul a little bit. It's all these stories, all these emotional connections which are so important and we can't let them get lost.

"There is something about the quality and timelessness of knitwear that makes people want to hand it down through generations, so we've high hopes of uncovering lots of interesting stuff. We want it to be a living, breathing archive, and I can't wait to use it as inspiration in the future."

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