A sad farewell to Caerlee Mills
I was very saddened this spring to hear that Caerlee Mills, reportedly the oldest continuously operating mill in Scotland, had run out of money and was to close. I had visited the mill – what most people would call a factory – twice, most recently in September last year. Best known as the cashmere knitting plant for the Ballantyne brand, the business in the small town of Innerleithen in the Borders employed 400 people at its height. That was long ago and its recent history had not been happy. It was bought by Italian investors in the early part of this century but the company spectacularly failed in January 2010 when 132 of the workforce were made redundant.
The production director Tom Harkness, seen here, made a brave attempt to keep the business going, retaining about 35-45 staff, but the past three years have been very hard. What started in 1788 has now come to an end.
Caerlee was celebrated for its expertise in hand intarsia, the technique whereby images are created in knitwear by hand, stitch by stitch.
The idea, Tom Harkness once told a journo, was to make knit look like printed silk. This tremendous level of manual skill is, of course, expensive and ultimately Caerlee could not find enough customers for its very particular niche specialism.
So the looms – the factory also knitted very high-quality plain knitwear – are silent and the hand intarsia frames stand idle.
All I can say is well done Tom Harkness and your talented colleagues for giving it a go. Fare thee well, lads and lasses. You deserved a better ending than this.
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