Interview: Tom Harkness’ Borders ink

Owner Tom Harkness saved Scotland's oldest working mill from administration
Owner Tom Harkness saved Scotland's oldest working mill from administration
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The man who saved Caerlee cashmere mill in Innerleithen is injecting a bit of punk attitude to its already impressive design credentials

TOM Harkness, managing director of Caerlee Mills in Innerleithen, wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s a very fine cashmere sleeve, hand-knitted in the mill he saved from administration in 2010 and the only one in the world to employ a team of 12 full-time hand-intarsia knitters; artisans who attract international catwalk designers and high-end labels that 
appreciate their ability “to make a knit look like printed silk”, as Harkness 
puts it.

Picture:  David Todd

Picture: David Todd

He has a tattoo too, but you won’t see that unless you’re on very good terms as, like so many who have embraced the ink, he prefers to keep it covered. However, his love of tattoos persists and was the inspiration for the mills’ first own-brand collection of 20 hand-made cashmere garments sporting tattoo designs launching next month.

Caerlee Mills doesn’t just knit jumpers, it creates artworks with yarn and specialises in intarsia, a knitting technique used to create patterns with multiple colours that appear to be inlaid in one another. It is a versatility that appeals to customers such as American designer Thom Browne, 
Clements Ribeiro, Preen, Ballantyne and, most recently, Holly Fulton, who hot-
footed it back to her Scottish roots when she was looking for someone with the skills to produce her signature graphic art deco knits. The resulting monochrome and sizzling colour creations wowed the fashion pack when she showed this year’s autumn winter designs at London Fashion Week in March and the designer is happily collaborating with the mill on her next collection.

“It is a wonderful experience working with Caerlee,” says Fulton. “It’s not often you get access to a manufacturer with such an incredible history and commitment to quality that is willing to vest interest in a growing brand such as my own. The breadth and range of specialist skills they have is akin to my own ethos of reinterpreting couture techniques within contemporary ready-to-wear, and this has formed the basis of what has proved to be an extremely fruitful relationship.”

Caerlee prides itself on being able to create any design, which is why its new Tattoo Collection of jumpers, hoodies, trousers and dresses adorned with koi carp, barbed wire, hearts and 
spiderwebs comes with a bespoke 
element. Because the process is not machine-led, there are no limitations on design or colour and anything goes, with customers invited to personalise their own one-offs. 
Whether it’s a delicate butterfly on the backside, a ‘I heart whoever’ on the sleeve, or a picture of your nearest and dearest festooned across the front, Caerlee can do it.

Picture:  David Todd

Picture: David Todd

“We can do 100 colours in a design, whatever people want,” says Harkness. “They might already have a 
tattoo they want to replicate, or have always wanted one but not wanted to commit. There’s something edgy and underworldly about tattoos but, done in cashmere, they become coveted and stylish. You can wear a jacket over your jumper, then take it off and reveal this crazy tattoo that expresses your personality. We’re looking for stockists and someone well-known to wear the Tattoo Collection and get it out there.” While a fabulous Holly Fulton or Thom Browne cashmere creation won’t leave much change from a grand, the Tattoo Collection starts at £300 and rises according to complexity of 
design. At her desk in an office festooned with samples, Louise Coulson painstakingly translates designs, photographs and imaginings on to graph paper, each square a stitch, then carries them along a corridor decorated with framed 
vintage intarsia knits – Chinese dragons writhing across a 1970s black sweater, delicate pink butterflies that seem to float off a 1950s cardigan – to knitters who can take up to three and a half days on just one koi carp sleeve.

“We are mostly manufacturers of other people’s products so the Tattoo Collection is to try and reach a different market. People like designer things but they also like one-offs, something personal no-one else will have,” says Harkness.

Raising the brand profile of Caerlee and designs bearing the ‘Caerlee Mills 100 per cent made in Scotland’ label is a matter of survival for Scotland’s oldest continually operating textile mill, which dates from 1788. In its time it has been owned by Ballantyne and Dawson International, with Harkness, who has worked his way up through the mill, taking control in 2010 after fighting to bring it out of administration and 
preserving the jobs of 40 of the 180 workers.

As the first snows of winter coat the town’s Caerlee Hill looming over the namesake white harl building, the air is crisp with the chill wind of recession blowing through a cashmere industry that, according to Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, employs about 4,000 people and contributes almost £200m to the economy.

Picture:  David Todd

Picture: David Todd

While the weather outside is frightful, inside the mill is delightful. Lights blaze down on cones of yarn piled high in myriad shades, the radio blares, machines hum and the washers and driers keep things cosy as designer collaborations and orders from high-end names under their own labels keep the machines humming and the workforce busy.

Intarsia hand-knitter David Todd. 53, who has been at Caerlee for 36 years, is working on a tartan patterned knit for Thom Browne. “When we show people how much work goes into it, they can see it’s not actually expensive. It takes 18 hours to do a whole jumper then it has to be put together and washed and ironed.

“You can’t get a machine to do what we do. As long as Tom keeps this place going and there’s a job I’ll be here. I’m in with the foundations.”

Karen Somerville, a body linker, is similarly long-serving, having been at the mill for 38 years, ever since she left school. “It’s a good way of living. I live in the town and I’ve brought my kids up on this job. It’s very satisfying and we feel a sense of pride about what we make, especially when we see it at fashion weeks. We’re busy at the moment so let’s hope it continues,” she says.

While the Barrie Mill in Hawick celebrates its good fortune in being acquired by Chanel, Harkness is determined to keep the Caerlee Mills name and what it stands for going, capitalising on its 100 per cent made in Scotland ethos and unique intarsia skills.

“All of our designs are made with top-grade yarn, the best clip from the belly of the goats, from Todd and Duncan in Kinross, on the premises, in house, with no outsourcing,” says Harkness.

“In the 1960s there were 400 people here, with kids and lives, before that even more. When we went into administration it was one of the saddest days in my life. So I invested my own money along with support from Scottish Borders and Dumfries Council. I always had an ambition to own my own company, but the overriding factor is that if this company closes, it’s the death of a highly skilled operation. We make things here that are worth paying for and will last.

“We’re something of an endangered species, but what we are left with now is a product that is so high end and unique you can’t surpass the quality. We know there’s a market for hand-made, top-quality products and ours is the real deal. It’s 100 per cent made in Scotland, right here at Caerlee.”

Twitter: @JanetChristie2

Tattoo Collection, from £300, Caerlee 
Mills, Innerleithen (01896 830 222,