Diamond in the rough

IT WAS in 1815 that a young framework knitter by the name of Robert Pringle bought the old Whisky House Mill in the Borders town of Hawick and, with his business partners, Waldie and Wilson, set up a hosiery factory on the premises. Little did he know his firm would go on to become one of the most famous knitwear companies in the world and the name would become synonymous with luxury over the next 200 years.

Yet, Waldie, Pringle, Wilson & Co, or Pringle of Scotland as it became, has done exactly that. From its humble beginnings as woollen-stocking makers, through The Lang Stand Oot (an eight-month industry-wide strike in 1822), two world wars, the Great Depression of the 1930s and a fire that destroyed much of its head quarters in 1939, Pringle is now an internationally renowned knitwear company which has dressed everyone from HRH Princess Margaret and Grace Kelly to David Beckham and Robbie Williams.

Now, as the company embarks on a fresh era, with a new CEO from Hong Kong at its head, comes a book which charts its fascinating story in full. Published this week Pringle of Scotland & the Hawick Knitwear Story, by the social historian Hugh Barty-King, is the first book of its kind to detail the history of the industry's biggest successes.

"Robert Pringle was one of the founders of the knitwear industry and the company has such an extraordinary story that someone had to tell it," says Barty-King, who began researching the book almost 30 years ago. And, although his research involved him trawling through the vaults of the British Linen Bank, deciphering hand-written memoirs and spending many long days in the National Library of Scotland, the end result is a detailed account of the survival of Scotland's premier luxury brand. And it is the label's association with luxury which, he says, has secured its longevity: "Right from when the first knitting frames were smuggled over the border from England, Hawick has always produced up-market knitwear: Pringle never tried to compete with the factories in Leicester, for example, which started making cheap, high-street clothes. It was always expensive, used superior spinning wool, and produced top-drawer garments that were in a different class from the rest. Although its profits have slumped at times over the years, it has survived because there is always a section of society who will pay for high-quality, beautiful clothes."

Luxury is certainly what appeals to today's consumer and the current craze for elegant exorbitance means that Pringle's fashion credibility is undisputed. Customers can't get enough of their pastel-coloured cashmere knits, which sell for around 200 in their flagship stores in London's Bond Street, Milan, New York and Tokyo. In fact, at the moment, they don't seem to be able to put a wool-stockinged foot wrong.

But it wasn't always thus. There were times when Pringle lost its way and paid the price. During the 1980s, under the management of Scottish Manufacturers Dawson International (who had bought the company from the Pringle board in 1967), they deviated from what they did best and went downmarket. Not only did their profits plummet, but they were also left with a serious image problem. "The management robbed the company of all its cachet and the business went off the rails," says John Davidson, a Scottish fashion commentator. "They specialised in sportswear, had Nick Faldo as their pin-up guy, and took the brand into a non-fashion ghetto. From then on Pringle was associated with fat, middle-aged golfers."

Things got worse. "They also had a problem with distribution. In a bid to compete with the Far East they were being sold in a number of down-market outlets and had become a low-price product," he says. "In fact, a decade ago you would have been hard pressed to find a cashmere Pringle product - it was all lambswool jumpers that retailed for about 50."

Pringle was in effect attracting the wrong kind of customer and, in the 1980s and 90s, became the football hooligan's sweater brand of choice. "It was the same with Burberry," says Davidson. "Any time you get an iconic pattern such as checks or diamonds being associated with a brand, they will become the totem of a culture; in Pringle's case it was adopted by the football casuals or chavs."

Pringle was reported to be losing an estimated 10 million a year on a similar turnover. But help arrived in 2000 from SC Fang & Sons of Hong Kong, who bought Pringle and installed ex-M&S director Kim Winser at its head. They then proceeded to sever ties with Faldo, sectioning golfwear off into a separate collection, and set about designing the luxurious, fashion-led Red and Gold labels which would capitalise on the company's Scottish heritage. For this last part Winser looked to Pringle's new design director, a Central St Martins fashion graduate named Stuart Stockdale, who set about plundering the archives in search of inspiration. He had a lot to go on. Pringle was one of the first brands to make knitted outer clothing in the early 20th century and it also introduced the intarsia pattern known today as the argyle (born out of the attempt to knit tartan socks for Edward, Prince of Wales). They were also at the forefront of the glamorous Sweater Girl glamour look in the 1950s, where images of young women wearing body-hugging twinsets with full circles or slim pencil skirts became iconic in chic magazines. Pringle is also credited with revolutionising menswear, which it achieved by dressing Nol Coward in pink cashmere.

Stockdale lent heavily on the company's history and, for its 190th birthday last year, reinvented 19 iconic pieces to create the Pringle of Scotland 19 Decades Collection. A lacy lingerie set paid tribute to its beginnings (they had almost switched entirely from hosiery to underwear by 1899), then there was a traditional men's cardigan, and a diamond-patterned jumper from 1985. But it was the pearl-buttoned twin-set that was most symbolic of Pringle's influence on everyday fashion. It is a look that has enjoyed countless revivals down the decades and one of which chic women never seem to tire. In the 1920s knitted sweaters were seen as functional classics or sportswear items, not fashion statements. However, in mainland Europe daring new designers such as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli were creating stylish yet practical womenswear and, to keep up with this emerging trend, Pringle hired the Viennese designer Otto Weisz. Under his direction Pringle started turning out the colourful sweaters and cardigans that every Hollywood darling and cool college girl lusted after.

"By 1934, when Weisz produced Pringle's pioneer collection of 'dressmaker' sweaters, it was realised that perhaps design could sell and was not just a luxury," says Barty-King.

"Knitwear needed designing just as much as blouses did. The lesson was learnt - and has never been forgotten - knitwear was a fashion commodity or nothing at all."

But, if it hadn't forgotten the importance of fashion all together, at the turn of the millennium Pringle certainly seemed to be suffering from short-term memory loss. Winser, however, went on the offensive: in 2003 he appointed the porcelain-skinned British beauty Sophie Dahl as the company's new face, and launched a series of sexed-up ad campaigns to remind everyone just how cool Pringle could be. At last, it was out with the discounted golfwear shops and in with the high-end designer shops. Pringle had arrived in Bond Street.

The brand was warmly welcomed back on to the catwalks, too, and, although the company will not disclose its annual profits, in 2005 Fang seemed close to recouping the 6 million he is said to have paid for the once-ailing firm.

But that same year saw Stockdale and Winser leave the company for fresh challenges. With ex-Gucci designer Clare Waight Keller and Fang's son Douglas now in charge, the question the fashion industry is asking is: will Pringle's potential be realised? The forecast is foggy. Waight Keller's autumn/winter 2006-7 collection featured women's cable-knit swing cardigans and sweaters, hand knitted in Scotland, and, for the men, traditional suiting teamed with cashmere, angora and camel-hair knits.

But, while it seemed to please the fashion pack in Milan, it did not completely "wow" them. Considering knitwear is a key look for next winter, it will be the shoppers on the street who cast the crucial vote.

Yet, with Pringle reporting losses of 7.5m last year, one good season might not generate enough money to pay for Fang's loyalty. Pringle always has the option of licensing its own-brand accessories, such as perfume and footwear, which could bring in huge royalties. However, as Winser said in a recent interview, knitwear is Pringle's soul and it seems unlikely it will sell that just yet. Following last year's debut in South Korea, Fang Jnr is instead more likely to try and boost the firm's financial outlook by going after the lucrative Chinese and Russian markets as well re-capturing America. Davidson is not convinced Pringle can do it. "They've done a lot to freshen up their image but they're not quite there," he says. "If they want to be sold in the right places and go global, they have to get their product perfect. But they haven't done that yet. Stockdale's succession of runway shows were not the greatest moments in fashion history. They are trying to do what Burberry did, but at the moment they're more like Burberry-lite. If they want to play with the big boys, such as Gucci and Prada, they have to be outstanding - not just good - and whether they are remains to be seen."

• Pringle of Scotland & the Hawick Knitwear Story, by Hugh Barty-King, is published on 6 April priced 25.