Friday, November 18, 2011

A Short History of Ballantyne

Caerlee Mills from the Chapel Street Gate in 1975

Though Scotland's most celebrated knitwear brand made a modestly late start in 1921, the Ballantyne family, in fact, had played a leading role in country's textile industry for several hundred years prior. The earliest account of the family’s involvement in woolens was recorded in 1666 when David Ballantyne built a mill in Galashiels, then a major spinning and weaving hub. Nearly one and a half centuries later his descendant Henry Ballantyne left the family’s ancestral home and for nine years rented Caerlee Mill*, situated further upstream the river Tweed in Innerleithen. Following a brief return to Galashiels, Henry successfully established his own mill just east of Innerleithen, which he called Tweedvale. Planned housing erected for the mill employees soon emerged as the village of Walkerburn, named after the Walker Burn that flowed into the Tweed at this site. Henry Ballantyne and Sons, as the firm was subsequently known, experienced tremendous success throughout the mid-nineteenth century thanks to explosive growth in demand for Scottish tweeds among Britain’s upper class and, increasingly, overseas in the United States.

After Henry’s death in 1865 his five sons pursued the family's concern with even greater tenacity. The younger three immediately departed Walkerburn to found the Waverley Mills in Innerleithen under their own partnership, Ballantyne Bros. Meanwhile, the elder two continued to manage their father’s mill until 1884 when the senior-most, David, set out to establish his own enterprise, the March Street Mills of Peebles, even further upstream the Tweed. Two years later David purchased Caerlee Mills in Innerleithen from the heirs of its deceased owner, Robert Gill, thus returning his father’s original mill to family hands. After David's death in 1912 his heir, Sir Henry, appropriated his uncles' Waverley Mills under his own control, combining the family's possessions in Peebles and Innerleithen under one name, D. Ballantyne Bros and Co Ltd.

"D. Ballantyne Brothers & Co Ltd
Photographed From An Aeroplane"

The first half of the twentieth century brought sweeping change to the fortunes and composition of the Ballantyne family’s holdings. During the Great Depression the business was substantially reorganized: the firm’s carding and spinning operations were centered at the Waverley Mills in Innerleithen while weaving became the devotion of the March Street Mills in Peebles. The knitting division at Caerlee Mills shuttered during the Second World War, but reemerged after as Ballantyne Sportswear Co and moved away from lower-value production to concentrate on exotic luxury fibers, particularly cashmere. The firm had pioneered intarsia knitting since the 1920s, whose designs grew increasingly complex and popular in the post-war period such that Ballantyne became a generic name throughout the world for the style. Ballantyne Sportwear was eventually sold off and traded hands several times in the 1960s before its acquisition by Dawson International, who made it a cornerstone of their vertically integrated, global cashmere empire. As a Dawson subsidiary the firm enjoyed several decades of unchallenged preponderance as the world’s leading manufacturer of cashmere knitwear. Elizabeth II personally visited Caerlee Mills in 1966 and honored the firm three times – in ’67, ‘82 and ’91 – with the Queen’s Award for Industry for export achievement. (Nevertheless, Pringle steadfastly retained her Royal Warrant.)

Elizabeth II Visit to Ballantyne in 1966
Photo: Caerlee Mills Ltd

Meanwhile, the rump D. Ballantyne Bros and Co Ltd merged with Henry Ballantyne and Sons, uniting the Peebles and Walkerburn branches of the family’s operations. This new group, called Scottish Worsteds and Woolens, initiated a spree of takeovers in the Borders until the Dawson conglomerate, in turn, absorbed it in 1981. To distinguish its product from the Ballantyne knitwear division already under Dawson ownership, the weaving mill assumed a new name, Robert Noble, after the founders of two reputable Borders mills it had earlier acquired. In 1995 Dawson sold Robert Noble to Moorhouse and Brook, now the Moorbrook Holdings, which currently possess the mill.

By the close of the twentieth century Dawson International found itself in deep financial straits. The group had grown heavily indebted over its ambitious acquisitions and heavy pension payouts while severe rises in commodity prices and stiffening overseas competition eroded its bottom line. In 2004 Dawson sold Ballantyne Sportswear to Charme, a venture capitalist firm headed by Ferrari-chairman Luca Cordero di Montezemolo. Hampered by continued lackluster performance, Charme spun off the Innerleithen facility in 2008 from the Ballantyne label, presently headquartered in Milan, Italy. The new partnership with Italian textile manufacturer Zegna Baruffa and American retailer Brooks Brothers lasted merely fifteen months when, in January 2010, J.J. & H.B. 1788 Cashmere Mills were placed into receivership. Most of the firm’s assets and employees were liquidated; however, the intarsia unit was preserved and continues to operate in the original, though now substantially deserted premises as Caerlee Mills Ltd. Nonetheless, the future of the facility remains in doubt, for the receivers have sought a buyer or developer for the property without success. In recent months local authorities have entertained the possibility of the mill's demolition.

* At the time Caerlee Mill was called Brodie Mill, after Alexander Brodie who originally founded it in 1788. The mill's later name was adopted from Caerlee Hill, which forms Innerleithen's western geographic boundary. "Caerlee" means approximately "meadow fort" in Gaelic, in recognition of the circular Iron-Age earthworks on the hilltop that once were surrounded by woods.

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