Playing the craftsmanship card. Fetishising skill. Rose-tinted nostalgia of tradition. Call it what you want but after the recent Dhaka factory disaster in Bangladesh, there has never been a more pertinent time to attempt to follow the trails of how our garments are made, from the originating fibres to finished garment on the rail. It's of course nigh on possible to do so with every piece of clothing we own or intend to buy and it seems even high end designers aren't exempt from a muddied trail of production. Two weeks ago though, I went up to Barrie Knitwear in Hawick, Scotland, recently acquired by Chanel's Paraffection subsidiary company, to witness a real paragon of virtue in knitwear production. No really. No wool was pulled over my eyes (see what I did there?). From cashmere production in local Scottish mills to the hand finishing of every knitwear piece for Chanel - this is a product that warrants high praise. There's a reason why there were so many heartfelt comments left on this Vogue article, when the news broke that Chanel had effectively saved Barrie Knitwear, a company with a 140 year history, from near closure and thus saving 176 jobs. Just to give a background figure to the decline in Scotland's knitwear industry, in the 1950s over 9,000 in the local area were employed in knitwear. Today, there are just 1,000 in total.
At Barrie however, there is a real emotive belief that they really do produce a superior and highly finessed knitwear and that their pride-fuelled standards and rigorous processes warrant a premium and is worth fighting for. It was a natural acquisition for Chanel as they had been working with Barrie for more than twenty five years, on producing their famous two-tone cardigans and twinsets, a product category that is second in popularity only to the Chanel jacket in ready to wear. It came as a huge relief for the Hawick community that Chanel could preserve Barrie's expertise and craftsmanship and help it flourish.
It was incidentally brilliant timing for me to go up to Barrie with Chanel as pieces from the pre-fall 2013 Paris-Édimbourg collection shown at Chanel's extravagant Highland fashion fling-fest back in December, were going into production. The Paris-Édimbourg Métiers d'Art collection wasn't specifically timed with Chanel's acquisition of Barrie but it was certainly a proud moment for the Hawick craftsmen and women who work at Barrie, to have the opportunity to contribute their very own tartan knitwear to the collection, so ingrained as part of Scottish costume identity as a kilt is, and to know that their future employment is safeguarded. A training programme has now just been introduced with six girls in training and Barrie actively promoting at local schools and colleges to declare that there's a definite future in the knitwear industry in Scotland.
Backstage at Chanel Paris-Édimbourg 2012 via Chanel News: Photography Benoit Peverelli
The video above gives a lovely overview of the how a signature Chanel two-tone cardigan is made but I mainly documented numerous pieces from the Paris-Édimbourg collection going into production, which will be in stores end of May/early June. This is a busy time for Barrie as most of their deliveries go into stores from June-September given that autumn winter is often a knitwear-heavy season. At any given time, they might be working on four Chanel collections at the same time to go through the processes of prototyping, commercialisation and production. For instance I spied a few pieces being made for the upcoming Chanel cruise collection show in Singapore in two days time and pieces from the A/W 13-4 ready to wear collection were also being made ready to be used as press samples.
The pride and joy of Barrie knitwear are these bank of traditional Bentley-Cotton knitting machines that aren't even in production anymore. They require continual maintenance and Barrie are in the process of buying up old machines from other factories. Clive Brown, sales director of Barrie Knitwear who was giving us the tour, said that these machines have a very even needle bed, with the ability to create the best single jersey fabrics.
First the stitches of a rib skirt of a sweater are mounted onto the needles, stitch by stitch, requiring precision and experienced hands to ensure the stitches are placed correctly. The needles are then placed into the machine to start the rhythmic knit process, which produces that very even and flat finish.
Barrie doesn't shirk away from modern machinery and the Japanese Shima Seiki machines also take up much of the workshop floor space. They're programmed with electronic patterns to achieve precise and complex designs, particularly for the intarsia tartan patterns that run throughout the Paris-Édimbourg collection. Brown summarised the process as thus. Chanel's studio has the 160 colour ways of yarn and together with Barrie, they decide on fabrics, which are then approved by Karl Lagerfeld. The studio in Paris sends through some very rough sketches of the knitwear pieces and it's up to Barrie to come up with the technical specifications for the patterns, building each pattern stitch by stitch. Chanel has ultimate design input but allow Barrie to provide the technical know-how and so it becomes a to-and-fro process when working out the knitwear designs. Brown said that this isn't always the case with working with other couture houses who often give more specific dimension specifications. The ratio split between using these modern machines and the more old-fashioned machines changes from season to season as it depends on what the end client wants.
Once knitted up, the panels and pieces of the garments need to be washed and in particular anything in cashmere needs extra attention in its softening process. There are standard timings when washing wool and cashmere but at Barrie, they have experienced people that know how to wash cashmere, touching the fibres at different stages in the washing process to feel whether it's ready or not, eschewing the standard times.
In the finishing and "confection" area, women dominate the workfloor as opposed to the knitting machines, mostly operated by males. Brown puts it down to a woman's "finesse" required in all the handwork. Here a dress from the Paris-Édimbourg collection is being outlined and cut to accomodate the straps and trims. On the signature two-tone cardigans, you can see that it takes an experienced steady hand to cut so boldly into the knitted fabric.
All of Chanel's knitwear is made in the fully fashioned method as opposed to the cut and sew method. The Cutting Class provides a good definition of the difference. The main difference is that a fully fashioned piece of knitwear is normally more expensive because the seams are knitted together and the cut and sew method is when the pieces of a knitwear are treated much like a woven garment and sewn together. The fully fashioned method produces a much flatter and neater seam. The knitting of the seams are done on these round machines, which require a great deal of skill to operate as the Barrie ladies cast on the pieces stitch by stitch, ensuring there are no missed stitches and knit the different pieces together - sleeves, bodies, vests, trims.
Then come the skilled hands, doing various processes to ensure each piece of knitwear meets Chanel's exacting standards. All loose threads are pulled in by hand so there is a neat finish inside the knitwear, something which they do specifically for Chanel.
Buttons and in this case, a little Paris-Édimbourg badge, are sewn on by hand.
The pockets on a Chanel cardigan are blind stitched to the body, to again get a clean finish with a much nicer presentation. This again is something that only Chanel ask Barrie to do and is a process that was only instilled two years ago. Brown asserts that there's "constant improvement within Chanel's studio to do something better."
One of the nearly finished Paris-Édimbourg pieces.
All pieces need to be perfectly pressed to attain a uniform sizing.
They need to undergo final measurements so that every pieces fits Chanel's exacting sizing specifications. If there is any place where they're over 1cm out, then the piece needs to go back and be reworked. A quick look at Chanel's sizing sheet, was susprised to see that a Chanel cardigan ran up to a size 50 (that's starting from a European size 34...).
Chanel's labels go on - the crowning moment in each piece of knitwear - and then they're bagged up ready for distribution to boutique.
Love the nine-tartan panelled scarves all piled up here. The colours depicted in the show imagery of the Paris-Édimbourg collection are definitely a lot brighter and more vibrant in person and really do put a much jauntier spin on classic tartans.
Knitwear pieces from the recent A/W 13-4 collection - i.e. the crazy tiling bit in the collection. Barrie undertakes knitwear production at every stage - doing the prototyping of show pieces for the catwalk shows, the commercialisation stages before production finally takes places.
There are several stages of inspection where the knits are pulled over light tubes and looked at meticulously to see if there are any dropped stitches, any uneven yarns or deficiencies. If they can be salvaged then they are reworked by hand. If not, then they need to be discarded and started all over again. It amazed me how many stages of inspection, checking and measuring there were from start to finish.
Up in the Barrie offices, Brown showed us a few pieces from the archive that they had produced for Chanel over the years, including a distinctive railway map sweater. The accompanying original sketches from the studio are indeed quite rough and it's testament to Barrie that they managed to build a pattern from those sketches. We also looked at some old images from Barrie's 140 year old history.
Whilst the emphasis here has been on Barrie's production of Chanel's knitwear, it's important to note that Chanel's Paraffection (meaning "For the love") group does not restrict any of their workshops from working for other brands and couture houses. For example it's clear that in the instances of feather makers Lemarié and the embroidery house of Lesage in Paris, to this day, they work for other houses in addition to Chanel because they are at the top of their game and are uniquely skilled in what they do. Vanessa Friedman wrote a skeptical post on Chanel's acquisition of specialist ateliers, wondering whether Chanel was trying to create a monopoly on skillset. This doesn't seem to be the case at all at Barrie, as we saw them working on pieces for other very famous brands alongside Chanel pieces. Brown also revealed that they were in talks with young British designers too about taking on their knitwear production. It seems it is in Chanel's interest to encourage growth at all the ateliers under their Paraffection umbrella, whilst being able to call on their skills to create pieces for the house. Brown throughout our tour was always quick to praise Chanel as a parent company. "Chanel have a belief that they want to have the best," said Brown. "They want to sell the very best that they can. I can't speak highly enough of them as a business and their ethics. They bought us in October and for Christmas they sent every employee here a bottle of perfume. That's unheard of in the industry." The perfume gift was of course a small gesture in the scheme of Chanel's position as a fashion behemoth but it's the little things that count, which foster a good relationship between owner and supplier.
The ultimate prizewinnere here I believe is the end Chanel customer. Brown did not hestiate when I asked is a Chanel knitwear piece worth the price it commands. "Absolutely," he affirmed. "If you want the best, you have to pay for the best. I believe we have the most skilled people in the industry. I've seen knitwear products for other couture houses and I know they're not made in the same way. It's not about doing things as fast as you can but it's about doing things properly." I certainly won't look at a Chanel twinset in-store or on eBay (sorry Chanel, I'm a hardcore secondhand designer fiend and even your lovely boutiques aren't going to sway me unless I suddenly hit the jackpot tomorrow) in the same way ever again. Hands matter. People matter. And that's something worth paying for.