Fashion: Yearning for yarn

Picture: Contributed
Picture: Contributed
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Noble fibres and names to conjure with are the trademarks of Esk knitwear, where design flair meets traditional craftsmanship

Cashmere, Scotland is already known and loved for. Tweed too. Shetland wool. Tartan, of course. But yak and camel? Not so much.

Picture: Contributed

Picture: Contributed

Undeterred, Lorraine Acornley and Stuart Maxwell are using the unlikely yarns – along with cashmere, extra-fine merino, silk, pima cotton and fine linen – to create beautiful pieces of knitwear and homeware from their base in the south-west of Scotland.

“It’s all what we call the noble fibres,” says 39-year-old Acornley, creative director of Esk. “They are entirely natural and are the highest quality you can source. Yak – when you say it, it doesn’t roll off the tongue like cashmere, but it is a really beautiful fibre and is not used very often. It’s not comparable but it’s not that far away from cashmere either; it’s a relative. We just wanted to explore some other yarns.”

Camel, too, conjures up images of something rather scratchy and uncomfortable. “It has quite a hair to it,” says Acornley. “There’s an artisan quality to it. When you look at it, to an undiscerning eye, it could be Shetland wool. But while Shetland has a dryness to it – as well as that airy, lightweight feel – camel is more luxurious.”

The designer graduated with a first from a printing and mixed textiles degree at Glasgow School of Art, then moved on to London’s Royal College of Art to study womenswear, specialising in knitwear. Immediately after graduation she was scooped up by Italian design house Alberta Ferretti, where she worked for a season, but she continued in conversation with Joseph Ettedgui, the Moroccan-born designer whose knitwear empire is celebrated for its simplicity and craftsmanship. He had seen her graduate collection and had kept in touch with the vague promise, “If anything comes up…”

Picture: Contributed

Picture: Contributed

Just as she was about to renew her contract with Ferretti, Acornley called. “I don’t suppose anything has changed,” she asked hopefully, and he replied, “Actually, it has.”

What followed was an 11-year creative partnership – first as an employee then on a consultancy basis – that she describes, simply, as “amazing”.

“Working with Joseph was my first real foray into the industry and the commercial world,” she says. “I’ve worked for small companies and larger ones; on Joseph’s Connolly luxury goods offshoot, and on Gold Label at Pringle of Scotland. They are all really different, but with the same high-end, quality product.”

From Ettedgui she has inherited his attention to detail. “He was a real stickler,” she says. “Everything from the design detail to the way it’s presented to the press at the end of the process – the spacing between the hangers in the showroom – he was involved in. So in a way there’s a slightly OCD part of me.”

Around 18 months ago, her path crossed with that of knitwear manufacturer Stuart Maxwell, and the pair hit it off. “Stuart had been making really high-end products for exclusive customers and there was a real obvious link for us to put our heads together,” says Acornley.

Following a ten-month incubation period, Esk was launched in September last year, with Acornley as creative director, bringing her fashion and design skills to the table, and Maxwell as managing director, for his expertise in manufacturing.

“We wanted to produce a really high-quality garment that was not too fashion led,” she says. “It wasn’t going to be throwaway; we wanted a decent product that would have longevity, using the skills of the crafts-people at the factory, who are incredible at what they do, tapping into that wealth of knowledge.

“My aesthetic is quite clean and minimal, it’s no-frills,” she adds. “There’s a masculine-feminine edge to what we do and, in terms of the homeware, it has a slightly Scandinavian feel. I collect mid-century modern furniture so a lot of the design references come from that – Eames and a little bit of George Nelson, that American 1950s thing.”

Everything they sell is made in Scotland, and Maxwell is based at the mill in Annan, while Acornley works from London. “We’ve got the balance just right,” she says. “A lot of our design inspiration comes from the local colour in Scotland, the countryside, but the urban landscape is really important as well because, obviously, that’s where the wearer will probably wear it, so it has to have relevance in both senses.”

The inspiration of the Dumfriesshire surroundings is clear from cushions and throws with such evocative names as Solway and Rockliffe, while the clothing has titles such as Jude, Camille, Matthew and Simon.

“Some of them are design references – people in art and culture that we love,” says Acornley. “Sometimes it’s family and friends. Sometimes when you’re working on a piece you just think, ‘Oh yes, that’s a Ben sweater’ or, ‘That’s a Matthew’. There’s somebody you have in mind – you can see them in that.”

The company is now celebrating the fact that, barely a year old, it is to be stocked in Harvey Nichols’ Knightsbridge and Edinburgh stores for autumn/winter. “A year ago we didn’t exist,” says Acornley, “now some really exciting things are happening.”

Twitter: @Ruth_Lesley