The Fabric of Time

Published Date: 23 October 2004
By Jackie McGlone

A CHANEL SUIT – AS SOFT AS A scatter of snowflakes and so exquisitely beautiful it moves you to tears – takes 150 hours to make.
The woman who buys it will be one of fewer than 2,000 worldwide who have the occasion and the means to wear haute couture. She will feel as if she is dressed in something made of thistledown. She will not spare a thought for the origin of the sublime
fabric that is as light as a butterfly’s wing. She will probably neither know nor care that the wool for the tweed comes from only the best Scottish lambs, and is woven in the north of England on one of the few remaining shuttle looms in Britain – preserved to meet Chanel’s exacting requirements.
Karl Lagerfeld, the man with the steel-grey ponytail and the fan, who heads up the most famous fashion house in the world, will have chosen the fabric personally. It will be exclusive to Chanel for one year. The specialised manufacturing and the small quantities involved will add up to a very expensive length of tweed, which is thought to amount to about a tenth of the price of the finished piece. The resulting suit – the skirt of which will feel as silken as a petticoat, while the jacket will hang like a dream – will have had its genesis at the Linton Tweeds factory in Carlisle. At this tiny mill, the wool is spun and dyed into fabrics that will grace the catwalk on the perfect body of a Gisele Bundchen.
Here, in one of the weaving sheds, under the long shadow cast by one of the city’s most dramatic landmarks – the mill’s Dixon’s chimney, which punctuates the Carlisle skyline like an exclamation mark – a young lad in tracksuit and trainers stoops over a spinning wheel that looks like something from a fairytale. He’s creating silky woollen yarn that will be as delicate as a cobweb, as resilient as carbon fibre, and which will probably win Chanel another award.
On the wall behind the weaver, instead of the customary Page Three girl, is a picture of Claudia Schiffer. Her pelmet-length skirt is topped with a blue jacket the colour of a summer sky. This is the tweed that Linton spins – tweed with sex appeal.
All over the mill, with its 130-strong workforce, are fashion pictures torn from newspapers, some from glossy magazines, others lovingly framed to show the rich, the thin and – to paraphrase P G Wodehouse – “the spinningly lovely”, all shimmering in Linton Tweeds. Here is the late Princess of Wales in ice-blue tweed. Close by are Princess Caroline of Monaco, in lemon flecked with cream, and Dame Vera Lynn in shocking pink, ultra-violet and black. Here is Stella Tennant, pale and interesting in red and white hounds-tooth. Beside her is the Queen, in buttery yellow (from Hardy Amies, not Chanel, of course). Uma Thurman favours coral pink checks and Cindy Crawford denim and tweed hotpants.
And, yes, darlings, that is Joanna Lumley as the Champagne-swilling, pratfalling Patsy looking, well, absolutely fabulous in tweed made in Carlisle. Behold the erstwhile face of Chanel, Ines de la Fressange, wearing tweed resembling golden chainmail, while the new face of Chanel, Nicole Kidman, is in orchid-pink tweed and chiffon, and Naomi Campbell flaunts tweed with raffia woven into it.
Raffia? Surely not. Oh yes it is, says Linton Tweeds’ erstwhile managing director and saviour, Leslie Walker, who hails from Selkirk. They told him he was mad. He had to be, putting raffia into the finest wool cloth – and Lurex threads too. He was cheapening a wonderful tradition. As for weaving Lycra into tweed so that it would mould itself around the female form, how absurd can you get? But, asked by Lagerfeld for a tweed “that would come and go”, Walker obliged.
His competitors were no less shocked when he kowtowed to the couturier’s demands for tweed with rubber flecks, tweed encrusted with sequins, tweed with silk ribbons, tweed with chenille velvet, tweed with glitz and tweed with glitter. How vulgar, they sniffed, as he sold his stunning fabrics to Europe, America and Japan.
Yet Linton Tweeds defied the sceptics and is still at the cutting edge, with a full order book that is “about to go off the planet”, and an annual turnover nudging £6 million this year, while others, less willing to experiment, have gone to the wall. Times have been tough in the textile trade – every month there have been job losses. Harris Tweed, the hallmark of quality Scottish clothing, may currently be in recovery, thanks to Nike, but when Walker was turning out tweed with a twist, the industry was hanging by a thread as Far East markets collapsed due to the strength of sterling against the nose-diving yen.
So why is Linton Tweeds so bullish? Why is Walker’s 40-year-old son Keith so optimistic about the future? “Because the Far East has opened up again for us, although Germany, with companies such as Escada, has also taken off, so much so that we are working three shifts – day, evening and night. The Germans like the fact that we produce such a high-quality product,” he explains. “We’re going through the roof at the moment. We’ve taken on 50 extra staff this year alone, some of them from Poland, because they were the only weavers we could find who had the necessary expertise and knowledge to work with our machinery. We were really struggling to find local weavers for the extra shifts.”
Indeed, hundreds of metres of rainbow-coloured tweed are piled high waiting to be checked before being exported to the US and Europe, as well as to the Far East. The firm has even invaded Russia, supplying one of its top couturiers, Slava Zaitsev.
The Walker family’s current confidence was born out of the crisis that faced Linton Tweeds in the early 1960s, when Leslie Walker was head-hunted from Selkirk to save a threadbare operation. He had been engaged on work-study at the town’s Heather Mills, which were started by his grandfather.
At that time the Carlisle mill was dying on its feet – the only people it sold to were the Paris couture houses, which was prestigious, but no-one can survive on the cachet of selling six metres of tweed to Chanel, or three metres to Dior each season. They needed new markets and, in 1969, Leslie Walker flew to Japan. Although he’s now retired, by the time he went into semi-retirement almost a decade ago, the Far East was the firm’s biggest market, accounting for £2 million a year. When the Japanese economy went into meltdown, his son Keith energetically turned to America and Europe. The company now supplies mail order fashion companies in the US and is building on the burgeoning design sector.
The client list reads like a Who’s Who of the glitterati – Armani, Balmain, Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Lacroix, Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Liz Claiborne, Louis Feraud, Bruce Oldfield, Jean Muir, Jaeger, Aquascutum and, of course, Chanel, with whom the mill’s long-term relationship has never been stronger.
THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A CHANEL collection without Linton Tweeds. The relationship goes back to the 1920s and to William Linton, an eccentric from Hawick, who started the company in 1912 in Carlisle, because it was famed for the skills of its handloom weavers. He was introduced to Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel by his friend, the couturier Captain Molyneux, another pioneer of understated chic.
Linton and the gamine Chanel immediately established an entente cordiale and from the day she opened her salon at 29 rue Cambon, she bought fabrics from Carlisle to create supremely elegant clothes that revolutionised the way women dressed. Her day clothes, using Linton Tweeds, were works of art, such as only the greatest haute couturier can accomplish. Her suits were timeless, always in the right fabrics, the right colours and the right weight of tweed. They were uncluttered and relaxed, and many of her designs have remained chic for half a century. Indeed, no other fashion designer has produced clothes of such long-lived acceptability and influence. “Let us beware of originality in couture,” she once said, “it leads to costume.”
As Keith Walker points out, this year you have not been able to move for knock-offs of Chanel’s trademark classic jacket, with its slim-fit boxy shape, all made in pastel-pretty nubbly tweeds. In and out of fashion over the years, the Chanel jacket was the preserve of Joan Collins and tedious society wives in the 1980s, but now Nicole Kidman wears one off-duty – with Earl jeans and a Banana Republic white T-shirt – as do best-dressed types from Uma Thurman to Kylie Minogue, Jemima Khan to Sam Taylor-Wood and Kate Moss, who will each pay around £1,900 for the genuine article. This summer the rip-offs came in candy colours, with distressed edges to give that artless, unfinished look invented by Lagerfeld – and every fashionable copycat in town purred over it.
But there is nothing like a Chanel original, as Kidman and Thurman would doubtless testify. And the real thing, 50 years ago, came from the north of Britain. A merchant venturer, William Linton employed two salesmen with ponies and traps to travel the Borders buying only the best quality Scottish wool, while selling suit lengths to wealthy Cumbrian farmers in the Lake District. By 1926, the London newspapers were reporting that Linton Tweeds was leading the way into all the top Paris fashion houses.
When Linton died, his daughter Agnes took over the mill; then her Scottish cousin, George Linton, joined the firm, leaving his home in Hawick for Carlisle. He, too, was enamoured of Chanel and, in 1963, he took the young Leslie Walker to Paris to meet her. “She was very old and very autocratic,” he recalls.
In the scented salon, the strapping, rugby-playing Walker perched nervously on one of the little gilt chairs. He clearly measured up, for Chanel went on buying from the mill and he was privileged to visit the hallowed place, halfway up the stairs, where she would sit coolly gauging the reaction of her clients and the press to her designs and their myriad reflections in her mirrored walls. She died in 1971 in the Ritz, alone, as she had lived for years, and since 1982 the house has been in the hands of “Kaiser” Karl Lagerfeld, who has spun Chanel into the postmodern era, mixing boucle with pearls the size of gobstoppers, stitching tweed with yards of ribbons and layering it with whispers of silk chiffon.
Lagerfeld has been known to send photographs to Carlisle of “a rice field at dusk”, “an Italian vineyard, “an old wall covered with lichens and mosses” and then request that tweeds be produced that replicate them. And that’s exactly what he gets, thanks to Linton Tweeds’ gifted head designer, Robert Irvine.
Leslie Walker’s tall and elegant wife, Carole, also a company director, holds up a swatch of burnt umber and clotted cream tweed. It reminds you of, well, an old wall covered in lichens and mosses. “Isn’t it gorgeous?” she asks as she strides out – in an immaculately-tailored Linton Tweeds suit, of course – on a whistlestop tour of the mill. We linger in the room where the yarns are stored. Here are great cones of jewel-coloured gossamer threads, silvery skeins of silk, raffia in black, midnight blue and gold, shimmering sequins, and peach-soft velvety ribbons.
This business is always fun, she says, dismissing with a wave of her hand the years the couple worked hard to keep the business going and to bring up three children, after borrowing money from her mother-in-law and £75,000 from the bank to buy the mill. Her husband remembers his schoolteacher mother asking: “Leslie, do you know what you’re doing?” To which he hesitantly replied: “Er, I think so.”
Now he’s passed on the shuttle to his two sons; Keith, who is managing director, and Bruce, who’s a company director. Keith has introduced new technology into the dye houses and is investing in more high-tech equipment. “We want to supplement and improve on our traditional methods, although we’ll never sacrifice our reputation for quality in this exclusive end of the market,” he says, adding that he’s wary of relying too heavily on computerisation.
The Walkers are proud that they kept faith with Chanel after the house was run by numerous designers and its fortunes see-sawed throughout the 1970s. It took the design genius of Lagerfeld to transform it, which he has done with superlative skill, perfect taste and disciplined flamboyance. Chanel was one of the last couture houses to go pret-a-porter – which is where the future lies, says Keith Walker, since couture is seen by many fashion pundits to be in its dying days. Linton Tweeds could have ended their partnership back in the 1970s, because they were losing so much money producing only tiny quantities of fabrics for the house. But Leslie Walker backed his hunch that one day Chanel would be important again – and so it was once Lagerfeld took over.
Carole Walker points to the bales of tweed waiting to be shipped to just one of Chanel’s five design labels and says: “Thankfully, Leslie got it right.” Meanwhile, Keith Walker – just back from the Paris shows – can’t quite believe that, thanks to the fact that everyone is doing their own take on the “Chanel” look, his business is “mad busy”.
“I keep waiting for the bubble to burst – for everyone in fashion to decide that they want smooth fabrics not nubbly ones,” he says, “but there’s no sign of it, despite the fact that this is such a notoriously fickle business. In a year, our turnover’s doubled. We’re going flat out to supply markets right across the globe, as well as keeping our original customer base supplied. It seems everyone everywhere wants a little jacket made from Linton Tweeds.”
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but apparently there’s a waiting list at Chanel for the real thing, despite all the chic and cheerful lookalikes. Personally, I’m still saving up for the genuine article – unlike the woman who went into Linton Tweeds’ mill shop in Carlisle’s Shaddongate and surreptitiously scissored the Chanel label from the classic jacket they had on display.
You’ll recognise her instantly – she’ll be the airhead with the “Chanel” label on the outside of her jacket.