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A briefs history of the wool trade

From woolly undies to invisible mending, pupils at Hawick High followed an interesting thread on a visit to a knitwear factory

From woolly undies to invisible mending, pupils at Hawick High followed an interesting thread on a visit to a knitwear factory

None of these teenage girls has ever heard of "fully fashioned underwear", but their attention never wavers as David Ferguson, site services manager at Hawick Knitwear, gives them a brief history of the company which has employed him for almost 40 years (the woollen underwear was its core product back in 1874).

The fifth and sixth-years normally attend Hawick High, but this session they have opted for the local School Plus programme and spend one day a week at the Borders College campus next door, working towards a BTEC certificate in fashion and clothing.

A visit to the knitwear factory is one of the additions made to the basic course by college faculty head Lynne Gilchrist, who wanted to "enhance the content offered to the students".

It would have been foolish not to incorporate their local industrial heritage, says course lecturer Lisa Thomson, as a major aim of the School Plus programme is to raise students' awareness of future education and career opportunities.

Borders businesses may not be employing the thousands of workers they did in the industry's heyday, and the demand for fully fashioned underwear may have died out almost a century ago, but knitwear design and production is still an important part of the local economy.

Lisa Thomson worked as a cashmere designer after graduation and her gran, uncles, aunt and twin sister have all had jobs in the mills. Mr Ferguson is surprised that only one of the students has a family connection to the industry.

The girls tour the factory and get a close-up view of some of the 21 processes that go into the production of each of the 10,000-plus jumpers made by the company every week.

The natural lanolin smell of the wool, which disappears when the jumpers are washed and steamed, makes art and design teacher Judith Murray nostalgic for the days she worked in a mill during the university holidays.

A textile design graduate, Mrs Murray teaches three days a week at Hawick High and works the other two days as education and outreach officer at the Borders Textile Towerhouse in Hawick, opened in 2009 to promote the "heritage and future of Scotland's premier textile manufacturing region".

She has also been involved in the development of the fashion and clothing course at Borders College and organised workshops for the BTEC students at the Towerhouse, where two textile designers taught them the basics of hand knitting and techniques such as hand printing on woven textiles.

After their factory tour, the students have a go at machining and hand- finishing their own beanie hats (which they get to keep), helped by "seamer" Jeanie McNulty and "invisible mender" Eileen Boni who, between them, have more than 40 years' experience in the industry.

The factory, like the Textile Towerhouse, is within walking distance of Hawick High and is owned by Benny Hartop, a former pupil of the school.

"We're a very close-knit community here in Hawick," Judith Murray comments (no pun intended).

Fashion and clothing students on the School Plus programme have responded well to the "more adult learning environment" at Borders College, says Mrs Gilchrist, with even small things like calling lecturers by their first names having a positive impact.

"One girl who was determined not to go on to further education now wants to be an art and design teacher. Another has lined up a work placement in a mill," she says.

As education and outreach officer for the Textile Towerhouse, Mrs Murray was responsible for a project last year which saw hundreds of secondary school pupils throughout the Borders learning how to sew a button on.

And a knitwear skills workshop for fourth years at the Towerhouse was a revelation for one pupil, who exclaimed after a demonstration of invisible mending: "I didnae ken ye could sort holes in jumpers!"

Textile Towerhouse website:

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