The Kinross firm has launched a collection of accessories and soft furnishings knitted from its own fine cashmere yarns
Photography Armando Ferrari
Words Judy Diamond
Scottish cashmere is reputed to be among the very best you can get, but what makes it so special? After all, most of the world’s cashmere starts off from the same place – the fine, soft hair of goats tended by nomadic herdsmen in Mongolia. But it’s the many decades of expertise and the exceptional care that’s taken with those precious fibres that produce something truly remarkable at Scottish textile mills.
Todd & Duncan is one such mill. It has been around for more than a hundred years, quietly spinning the finest cashmere yarn and supplying it to some of the world’s most revered fashion houses. It has recently launched a new brand, Todd & Duncan 1867, offering knitted pieces – scarves, gloves, socks, blankets and cushion covers – in a glorious spectrum of colours, all made from yarn produced using the same time-honoured processes.
“It’s all about quality throughout the manufacturing process, and we oversee all stages of this – starting from the fibre, moving into the yarn, and then into knitting,” explains sales director Bruce Cameron. “We work with a very exacting fibre specification, and our pieces are knitted with what is known as the ‘Scottish handle’, an expression that describes the result of a tighter tension to create a denser fabric – a bit like the thread count on sheets. It means we use more cashmere yarn per piece, increasing durability and longevity and resulting in exceptional quality.”
Quality has always been Cameron’s focus. He started straight from school as a quality control apprentice in 1985 and has been with the company ever since. And he is far from alone in being promoted through the ranks. The company employs 200 people at its mill in Kinross. “We’re lucky to have a very loyal workforce – in some instances as many as three generations of the same family work for us,” he says. “We encourage young employees through the mill and we rely on the talent of older members of staff in our production departments – there’s a cross-pollination of old skills and new technologies. And we do the same with our product: harnessing our expertise, knowledge and insights and combining these with a fresh look and feel to make specific cashmere pieces relevant for today – our ‘living heritage’, as we call it.”
That heritage began in 1867 in Alva, where textile manufacturer William Todd and leather merchant James Duncan set up in business together, spinning wool yarn for the weaving industry. By 1897, the company had expanded, moving along the road to its current site on the edge of Loch Leven. The focus in the early 20th century was on producing yarns for tweeds and military uniforms, but visionary director Alan Smith saw knitwear as the future and switched to producing lambswool. “We had a concept of perfection right from the beginning,” he said. The move to cashmere followed once the process for dehairing (the separation of coarse outer-hairs from the fine soft fibre used for spinning) was mechanised.
Smith’s drive for perfection permeates every aspect of Todd & Duncan’s operations to this day – all the way to Inner Mongolia and the people who painstakingly gather the raw fibre. “We have long-standing relationships with our suppliers, sourcing only raw cashmere fibres that match our exacting specifications,” says Cameron.
The nomadic and fragmented nature of goat-herding makes true and complete traceability difficult to achieve, but firms like Todd & Duncan are trying to make things better. “Through the purchase of an increasing percentage of sustainably certified fibre, we are working to assure the welfare of the goats and their environment.”
The firm takes its responsibilities seriously, supporting local projects in Kinross. “Loch Leven has an RSPB nature reserve and is a thriving spot for wildlife, with brown trout, pink-footed geese and many wintering birds making their home here,” says Cameron. “We ensure that all the water we use throughout our process is simply ‘borrowed’ from the loch, cleaned and then returned.”
The loch’s pure, soft water is essential to the feel and the look of Todd & Duncan’s cashmere, and indeed it was proximity to a guaranteed supply that made the company’s founders choose the Loch Leven site all those years ago. “It opens up the fibres in our yarn, creating beautifully consistent colours when we dye the fibre.”
The mill appears rather unassuming from the outside but, once through the doors, it’s noisy, busy and buzzing with energy. The technology has been consistently updated and modernised where necessary, but many time-tested methods are still used in every aspect of the production process, from dyeing and blending, through carding (combing the fibre through a series of rollers to align and smooth the fibres into an increasingly fine web) to spinning, winding and twisting – and now, with the 1867 collection, to design and knitting.
“Nobody understands cashmere yarn as we do,” says Cameron. “We know the best way to treat it and work with it. This makes our pieces the true expression of a centuries-old craft, passed from one generation to the next.”