Hammering looms and mighty machines, soft Scottish water, miles and miles of yarn and artisanal expertise of generations of weavers creating colour palettes reminiscent of heather, loch, sea and sky, the cacophony of craft in the making and the rainbow of cloud-soft cashmere that all this creates, is Begg & Co.
Begg & Co has been a major player within the iconic Scottish cashmere industry for nearly 150 years, supplying luxury fashion houses, the great and the good the world over, all anonymously as a label-less ‘factory-brand’, until 2013 when Begg & Co came out of the wings and emerged as the globally celebrated Scottish cashmere specialist. Since Begg & Co’s rebranding, collaborations with Angela Bell (Queene & Bell) and Michael Drake (Man Drake Design) have meant that classic has merged as seamlessly with the contemporary just like their beautiful new ‘Nuance’ scarves that appear to change colour as if by magic!
Originally a Paisley-based company making shawls, Begg & Co moved to Ayr for the soft waters essential for the very best quality cashmere and continued making scarves and throws, and it is these accessories that it still resolutely specialises in. However, as well as supplying traditional luxury blankets for royal knees, it has also diversified into lighter more modern pieces for high fashion consumers, from the US to Japan. This relaxed and informal version of this statement Scottish material, so steeped in heritage, is the new 21st Century face of Begg & Co.
The new branding somehow manages to merge the contemporary and the historic, retaining handcrafting and ancient machinery, whilst embracing cutting edge computerised techniques, with a dash of perfectionism, such as insisting on only using hand-harvested Tuscan teasels to ‘tease’ the surface, raising the pile to create the much celebrated innovative ‘ripple’ cashmere, as well as humidity-controlled and paper-pressed storage – all finishing touches which makes Begg & Co’s cashmere extra-special.
We are, therefore, extremely lucky to talk to Ann Ryley, Sales & Marketing Director at Begg & Co, to gain an understanding of what manufacturing the highest quality Scottish cashmere actually entails…
Firstly, for those readers that aren’t familiar with Begg & Co, please can you tell us about the company and style of products?
We were founded in 1866 by Alex Begg in the town of Paisley, the town noted for its iconic pattern, initially making hand-woven paisley shawls. In 1902 the company moved to the seaside town of Ayr, on the west coast of Scotland, for the increased availability of raw materials and the reliable source of soft water that flows off the Ayrshire hills; the soft water being an essential ingredient in the finishing of the fabric, and we have been manufacturing there ever since. Originally focussed on making fabric for other companies, which it still does, the company established the separate standalone brand, Begg & Co, in 2013.
Begg & Co makes stylish and contemporary luxury woven scarves, stoles, wraps and throws for men, women and interiors, specialising in cashmere, as well as cashmere blends, such as cashmere and silk, lambswool angora and merino.
What makes Begg & Co unique is the number of colours we offer in different plains – thirty five in total – and the number of different weights; traditionally relatively heavy weight in winter, and fine, lightweight scarves for the summer. We produce the finest scarves of any cashmere producer in Scotland and are always developing the quality.
For 150 years, the company has been manufacturing for top couture and fashion houses around the world in anonymity. What was the catalyst that prompted you to develop your own label – Begg & Co?
As much as we love being associated with the fantastic companies that we manufacture for, and work well with, we wanted to build our own brand and see the Begg & Co name on the scarves that we produce, allowing us more control over our own destiny. This was a decision supported by our owner who felt it was important for us to develop a label so that we’re not entirely dependent on big couture clients going forward, and which is what led us to collaborate with the global creative agency Winkreative to develop a fresh identity, drawing on our heritage, but with a contemporary outlook.
What are Begg & Co’s design influences and processes, artistically and technically?
From an artistic point of view, we always start with a traditional and classic base and modernise the designs by giving them a contemporary twist, which is a theme running through every collection, creating a more casual range appealing to a younger audience, whilst retaining the classic luxury we’re known for.
Technically, we’re very advanced and are always developing new cloths and new techniques. For instance, we produce an ultra-lightweight cloth called ‘Wispy’, which uses cashmere yarn so fine it is too weak to weave by itself, so we developed a patented process to strengthen the yarn in the weaving process by mixing it with a supporting thread – Keralon – a synthetic material, which then dissolves into liquid form and washes away, so we’re just left with an ultra-fine cashmere cloth.
To give an indication of how fine it is, five miles of cashmere yarn is used in each scarf! It took us many years to develop Wispy cashmere, not just the strengthening process, but treating the fabric in an aqueous solution and getting the temperature to wash just right, whilst ensuring the colour fastness is still there. All very difficult to achieve. We certainly challenge ourselves technically, and we’re very proud of the fact that it’s the lightest cashmere product produced in Scotland today.
We also developed a unique cloth called ‘Nuance’, which changes colour from fringe-to-fringe in a seamless transition without any incremental steps. We used a spinning company that works with us exclusively to produce this cloth, and woollen yarn is made in a special way where small batches of coloured fibres are individually weighed and fed into the carding machine by several pairs of hands to get full control over the colours.
Due to the high level of human input, the cost for this yarn is extremely expensive, but it has proved very popular due to its beautiful colourways, many of which are influenced by Scotland’s textural landscapes, lochs and seascapes.
Michael Drake and Angela Bell design your menswear and womenswear collections respectively; how important have their influences been and what drew them to Begg & Co?
Their influences have been very important, with Michael overseeing the design input, styling and overall hand writing of the mens collection and Angela taking on womenswear. Both Michael and Angela have previously started their own brands, and that experience has been very important to us in the recent launch of our brand.
Michael, who was previously head of menswear design at Aquascutum before establishing Drake’s, has an incredible sense of colour and has been responsible for the introduction and editing of the general colour ranges as well as challenging us on the finishes used in cloth; as well as the more traditional finishes for the cashmere, Michael suggested special finishes – washed cashmeres – for a more casual, slightly crumpled finish, which has been very successful in the marketplace. Michael’s experience in the accessories market has certainly challenged us in terms of how our products are worn and what they are worn with.
Angela founded Queene and Bell, a cashmere knitwear design company from Hawick, and her knowledge and experience has been invaluable in reworking our traditional tartans and paisley designs, as well as producing contemporary patterns inspired by North Indian tribes, creating a quirky combination of the traditional and classic with a contemporary twist.
As to what drew them to Begg & Co, Michael has known Begg & Co and its products for many years, and had always considered the company a hidden gem, with great people, service and technical skills producing the best quality products to the highest possible standards, and when he knew that the owners had decided to set the company on a new course through a re-branding and raising the profile in collaboration with Winkcreative, he was keen to come on board via his company Man Drake to up the anti in the styling and design offering.
Angela came on board as she identified with the craftsmanship and quality of the products we produce. Angela’s background is fashion design specialising in cashmere knitwear, so working with Begg & Co, a weaving business, creating really ultra lightweight cashmeres, for instance, was new to her and represented a great opportunity; mixing heritage with modernity.
For anyone unfamiliar with cashmere as a material, how would you describe the fabric and what are its qualities that make it so special?
Cashmere is unique in that it’s both warm and light at the same time; you can achieve a subtleness and softness of colour in cashmere that can’t be achieved in other fabrics. It has great insulation properties, being very warm in the winter yet cool in the summer. To the uninitiated, I would simply recommend wearing it and you will find out for yourself how special it is!
Begg & Co places great emphasis on the handcrafting of its products; could you give us insight into the craftsmanship behind the making of your scarves and throws, as I understand some of the techniques you use in production are unique to you, such as raising the cloth with hand-harvested Italian teasels?
We really place a great emphasis on craftsmanship in the business and the production process involves over thirty different stages and is very much an artisanal one, including the use of traditional looms and machines where we feel those techniques are the best way to do things.
For example, we still use a hundred year old wooden milling machine to pummel the cloth to release short fibres for a soft handle. We use Italian teasels, grown for us in the Tuscan hills for two years before being hand-harvested at dawn, where the spiky flower heads are sent to us which we add to the machinery by hand each week – thousands of them. This brushes the surface of the cloth to raise the pile, creating the characteristic ripple finish of our luxurious cashmere scarves.
During the process, soft Scottish water, an essential ingredient in the finishing process, is sprayed on, and afterwards, the cashmere is pressed overnight between sheets of special paper to give the cashmere its signature glossy sheen, so it is very much a unique process, and not one that can be copied. Many of the skills used in the process take a long time to learn as we use a large number of bespoke and unique techniques; some of our employees have been with us for forty years, which helps when imparting their knowledge and training of apprentices. Everyone who works at Begg & Co understands the importance of getting the process right every time, and paying close attention to detail, realising it’s not all about speed.
Traditional craftsmanship is clearly vitally important to you, but do you also embrace the use of new technologies, whether in production or design?
Yes, absolutely; whilst we use traditional craftsmanship where that is the best way of doing things, and where modern technology cannot improve on the process, we also embrace the latest technologies, whether in design or production, where it has been proven to outperform traditional methods. For instance, we purchased a state-of-the-art warping machine last year, as well as two new computerised Jacquard weaving looms, and are intending to buy two looms this year as well.
Our parent company, Lindengruppen, has invested heavily in our machinery, production and design capabilities which will allow us to continue producing evermore innovative and stylish products. It’s the combination of traditional weaving expertise and modern technology that sets us apart from our competitors.
How important is maintaining production in Britain, and specifically the ‘Made in Scotland’ label, to the Begg & Co brand?
It is absolutely vital and in fact the ‘Made in Scotland’ label is the essence of the brand. Scotland has strong links to cashmere production and to celebrate the association is good for Begg & Co, emphasising the quality, heritage and tradition of what we do, albeit interpreted in a contemporary way. So often these days, products aren’t actually made here, but ours are and it confirms the authenticity and provenance of our products, and we’re not just making them abroad and putting a label on them.
You have recently collaborated with a number of other designers – how important are collaborations for Begg & Co?
It’s very important, but any brand collaboration must reflect both our sets of values, which can be quite difficult to achieve. We’ve developed two collaborations with the global affairs magazine Monocle, an associated company of our design agency Winkreative, for a range of travel scarves, as well as with the fashion emporium Dover Street Market in Japan. We have also collaborated on a range of throws for the hotel Chiltern Firehouse in London. It’s all about finding the right partners.
Is there a typical Begg & Co customer?
When it comes to retailers, there isn’t really a typical client as we sell to some of the most classic as well as the most fashionable of stores, and it is unusual to sell to both. Irrespective of the differences, I think the underlying commonality is they all appreciate quality.
Likewise consumers who purchase products directly from our website: there isn’t a typical customer, and they vary across a broad spectrum of ages, nationality and gender, though I would say it’s someone who isn’t influenced by an obvious brand or label, but just likes to know they are wearing something of quality without having to show it off.
What would you put the success of Begg & Co down to, given that most other cashmere producers in Britain have either closed or moved production abroad?
It’s a combination of things; design, innovation, quality of production, the mastery of our weavers, only using the finest quality materials, our heritage and artisanal traditional craftsmanship. Although with these latter two points, it’s important to stress we can’t live off heritage and tradition alone, and it’s vitally important they’re interpreted in a contemporary way to be relevant, and this is underlined in all the collections we produce.
Finally, what’s next for Begg & Co; are we going to see greater ranges, wider use of materials, further collaborations with designers?
We’ll continue to work with international fashion houses and luxury brands around the world to develop new products and materials building on our technical and weaving expertise, as well as our own Begg & Co branded ranges. I anticipate there will be further collaborations in the near future, but being selective over the choice of partners. We don’t yet have our own retail stores, and whilst we’re not planning on opening stores in the near future, it isn’t something that we can entirely rule out.
Thanks to Ann Ryley for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions. All images © Begg & Co.