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Thistle and Broom Stories
Hillary Rohde

Cashmere from Scotland

Cashmere from Scotland

The country chiefly responsible for the commercial development of cashmere yarn, i.e. Scotland, (Scotsman Joseph Dawson traveling in Kashmir in the 1870s developed a method to mechanize the separating of the fine goat fiber from the course outer hair making the down suitable for spinning) is rarely, if ever, credited in fashion magazines. Although we dread the idea of sweater wearing when temperatures are in the 80’s, a brief rant is in order.

Cashmere from ScotlandA recent fashion magazine featured cashmere (or wool) sweaters on five (of six) pages while the remaining page showed a tweed suit. With labels from exclusive NY or Italian designers delicately sewn into them, all decidedly plain affairs which appear to be machine knit (though we haven’t called to double check) and universally come with price tags that are not for the faint of heart.  The collection of sweaters I refer to ranged from $585 (USD) through $1095 (USD)!  Surely the name on the label can’t justify that much for a machine knit sweater?

As Scotsmen and women why should we even care? Indulge me. In the last decade 35,000 jobs in the textile industry have been lost in Scotland. With consolidation and declining skills, Scotland’s synonymous association with cashmere knitwear would seem in real danger.  What can we do to stem this trend? Well, we can choose to make our purchases close to home.

At this time last year Thistle & Broom’s managing director saw a “Fair Isle sweater in cashmere” in a fashion magazine priced at just over $900 (USD).  She confirmed her suspicions by calling the designer’s New York headquarters; although it was hand knit the work was done in China and not in Fair Isle (or on any of the Shetland Isles where Fair Isle patterns sweaters have been knit for hundreds of years).  She set about to channel her outrage, and set things “to right”. 

As recently as a third of a century ago the Knoydart Peninsula, in the Western Highlands of Scotland, had no telephone system (the closest phone box was 50 miles away). No public water infrastructure or electricity grid existed and it was only accessible by sea. Even today, according to the Guinness World Book of Records, it is the most remote part of Great Britain.  As a newly wed Hillary Rohde took note that her new neighbours couldn't afford to buy wool for new things and were constantly unpicking garments and endlessly knitting anew. With a huge pool of talent to draw upon, she had a vision of working with the best material available, cashmere. When she began, no one made a yarn capable of being hand knit, no shrinking violet Hillary approached one of the biggest cashmere mills in Scotland, Todd & Duncan, and got what she wanted.

Hillary Rohde spent over thirty years guiding hand-knit cashmere to a level of extraordinary beauty, (including providing the hand knit efforts for such internationally recognisable labels as N. Peal and Pringle of Scotland).  In the process the company has created an international standard for excellence achieving an almost a cult status for owning (and wearing regularly). Today over three hundred hand knitters continue to produce extraordinary cashmere knitwear, in turn there can be no doubt that together they are helping to preserve cottage industry in Scotland much the way The Harris Tweed Authority has been able to do.

Working with Hillary Rohde Limited Thistle & Broom has developed an exclusive line of entirely hand-knit cashmere* sweaters with names such as Off-Kilter, sumair (Gaelic for the drone of a bag pipe as the stitch clearly resembles), Gilgit (an ancient Kashmir city noted for its location along the Silk Route traveled by Dawson and Waltz.  Knit exclusively in Kinross-based Todd & Duncan yarns, which is owned by the firm bearing Joseph Dawson’s name, i.e., Dawson International, the unisex styles are modeled by Pop Idol star Darius and his brother Aria while ladies styles are variously represented on beautiful young Celtic women. 

The cashmere offered by Thistle & Broom is priced in the same range as those previously mentioned sweaters, but there are three critical differences. First, the hand knit quality is unequalled, second your purchase is guaranteed to positively impact local economies across Scotland one piece of knitwear at a time, and finally 8% of the net profits are re-invested in Scottish cultural heritage and historic preservation. 

Edinburgh-based Thistle & Broom got it just about right. 

*As a final point of useful information, it takes over 100 hours to knit a single sweater and as you can imagine a considerable level of expertise is demanded for working with such a fine fiber or in the complicated patterns of traditional Fair Isle.  Christmas orders much be received by 15 October to ensure delivery.


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