Pringle reaches 200 years: Diamonds are forever

Tilda Swinton wears Pringle as part of an advertising campaign. Picture: Contributed
Tilda Swinton wears Pringle as part of an advertising campaign. Picture: Contributed
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As knitwear giant Pringle celebrates its bicentenary, a new exhibition showcases its timeless designs, writes Janet Christie

BOYFRIEND jumpers, boyfriend jeans, they’re one of the biggest fashion trends of the past few years but Scottish women were ahead of the curve in wearing boyfriend jumpers a century ago. Back in the First World War with their men away fighting in Europe, women took to wearing their jumpers and cardigans, and when Tommy came marching home again, he faced another battle on the home front when the women didn’t want to hand them back. Knitwear giant Pringle of Scotland can claim to have been in at the start of this trend, as one of the biggest manufacturers of knitwear at the time at its mill in the textiles centre of Hawick.

Pringle is celebrating its 200th birthday. Picture: Pringle

Pringle is celebrating its 200th birthday. Picture: Pringle

The history of the boyfriend jumper is just one of the themes explored at Fully Fashioned: The Pringle of Scotland Story, which opens on Friday at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and coincides with the company’s bicentenary. On display will be more than 60 jumpers, twin sets, underwear, socks and artefacts that trace the brand’s journey from cosy to cool.

Georgina Ripley, curator of modern and contemporary fashion and textiles at National Museums Scotland, said: “This exhibition will feature iconic designs from an organisation that has played an integral role in the development of the Scottish textiles industry and is a key player in the British fashion industry today. National Museums Scotland’s collection of fashion and textiles is one of the largest and most comprehensive in Britain and we are particularly excited to be hosting this exhibition ahead of the 2016 opening of four new galleries of fashion, design and decorative art at the National Museum of Scotland.”

According to exhibition curator Alistair O’Neill, of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, the star of the show is a pale apricot jumper loaned by the Queen.

“The sweater was part of her wedding trousseau and comes with a 1948 thank you letter signed by Princess Elizabeth. We are very proud to have it in the exhibition. The royal warrant was first given to supply the Queen Mother with hosiery and the Queen often wears Pringle.

“What is amazing is that these garments are not worn for ceremonial occasions but for comfort and desirability. The Queen often has a twin set on under her Barbour jacket when she’s at Sandringham and Balmoral. Royal figures and celebrities wear them, but they’re within the reach of most people too. There is no tribe, age range or demographic. It’s quite egalitarian. That’s part of the magic.”

Also in the exhibition is the limited edition twin set Tilda Swinton, who has a long association with the label, designed as part of the collection made for the firm’s 195th anniversary. Inspired by her grandmother’s much-loved bottle green combo, it features the same darned elbow, up to 20 of them stitched by Swinton herself.

Perhaps the key to Pringle’s longevity has been its ability to marry heritage and innovation, an example of which is embodied in a white cable-knit, polo neck sweater included in the exhibition. With 3D printed plastic stitches and hand-knitted construction links, the jumper is an example of the vision of current head of design, Massimo Nicosia.

“What’s important about Pringle is it is aware of its Scottish traditions and is still trying to make a fresh statement about what Scottish creativity is today,” says O’Neill.

Pringle has a long tradition of working with creatives such as David Shrigley, Douglas Gordon, Robert Montgomery and Alasdair Gray, and the latest collaboration with the choreographer Michael Clark will be shown as part of the exhibition. Three short films featuring dancers in knitted cardigans, vests and underwear demonstrate the warmth, flexibility and breathability of the designs.

Along with the to-die-for designs on display are less glamorous items, which despite appearances are just as integral to the Pringle story.

“Some of the most fascinating pieces are those that visitors might walk by, such as the early pieces of hosiery,” says O’Neill. “They might look insignificant but they are incredibly rare.”

Underwear was the original product manufactured by the firm, founded in Hawick in 1815 by Robert Pringle, and the mill produced woollen socks, long johns and combinations that were popular right up until the bottom fell out of the underwear market in the late 1940s. Pringle had begun the move from underwear to outerwear when Viennese designer Otto Weisz streamlined the look in the 1930s and the name became synonymous with cashmere twin sets, cardigans and sweaters. By the 1950s, royals and film stars led the clamour for cashmere and lambswool, and sweater girls were all the rage. Seamless and fitted, the jumpers were also ideal for sportswear, and golfers like Arnold Palmer, Nick Faldo, Tony Jacklin and Colin Montgomerie followed the example of the early women golfers who championed the look on the links.

In 1967, the company was taken over by what became Dawson International and then bought by Hong Kong based SC Fang & Sons, who have taken the brand high end and increased its concentration on cashmere.

“The availability of the twin set at all levels of the market, from M&S to Primark, shows it’s an enduring idea. But the best and original is Pringle. It’s amazing how warm people feel about it. It’s about heritage, but it’s also about how you marry that to the modern age, and Pringle do both,” says O’Neill. n

• Fully Fashioned: The Pringle Of Scotland Story, Friday to 16 August, National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, admission free (