Production Line: Esk Valley
A short time ago some of the team made the journey past the border into Annan, Scotland, to visit Esk Valley; home of Nigel Cabourn Authentic Knitwear.
Here we met Esk Valley’s managing director Stuart Maxwell. Stuart showed us around this impressive factory, the yarns they use, the machines they work with as well as introducing us to the skilled work force that help to maintain such exceptional quality and standard of knitwear. He also offered some valuable insight into the history of Esk Valley as well as what it’s really like working with Nigel Cabourn!
I first met Nigel, about 15 years ago now. He came with this idea of doing ‘The Ascent of Cabourn’ that was the collection we did the Lewis snowflake sweater for him. He disappeared for 3 or 4 years then got back in touch, and it went from there. I must say we really do enjoy working with Nigel, he has this kind of enthusiasm that is so infectious, it has been a real pleasure to work with him.
How long has ESK been around for?
Esk has been around since 1968, my father started it and it has changed only a little over the years. We used to do weaving and knitting, but we decided to concentrate more on the knitting back in the early 90’s when I first came into the business. That must be around 45 years that we’ve been around, so it’s been a fair old while!
Can you briefly talk us through the process of when you first speak to Nigel about a design he has in mind, to then going on and producing it?
Nigel has a very strong aesthetic and his idea of what he wants to do is his alone, despite it being much copied these days! I think because we worked for him for so long, and as I’ve been in this business for so long, he just needs to mention something and you can almost picture what he is after. It is a relationship and a connection we have had for a long time, I like to think I understand what he wants and how to make that in terms of knitwear. So it just works.
You’re based in Annan on the Borders of Scotland, what are the benefits of being based here?
Traditionally there has always been a sort of infrastructure of this industry here. In Dumfries, the big town near Annon, there were some big factories, Robertson’s, McGeorge’s, Wolseley – who make a lot of socks, so in Dumfries I think there were well over 1000 people who were employed by factories. I suppose we set up here because of that legacy. As well as that the skills of the people working here are second to none. For years their their parents have been in the trade, and it gets passed down the generations. It certainly feels like we are soaked in heritage here.
Is there anything about working with Nigel that is different to your other customers?
I think the big thing about working with Nigel is he really does put the hours in, he works so hard. He is always finding new things, and coming up with new ideas, it’s that enthusiasm that really pushes us to do a good job for him. Sometimes it’s mission impossible, but we do try our hardest to do what he wants!
Can you talk us through the kind of yarns you use at the factory?
We only use natural yarns and natural fibers; we don’t use any man mades. Not that there is anything particularly wrong with man mades, it’s just that we prefer to work with natural fibers. There is nothing worse than making something that is ultimately a bit rubbish! If you are making something you want to make sure it’s great, and that’s why we stick to natural fibers, it just seems to make sense for us. It’s not the cheapest place to make knits in Scotland, so why would we compromise by choosing cheaper yarn. In the end you add value on to the garment and have a high end product.
We are making quite a few knitwear pieces in ESK for this coming AW16, are there any you find particularly special, or a personal favourite?
I love the big shawl neck cardigan; I can see that working really well as a new style. I’ve also always loved the 4 pocket vests; that’s a great style.
Has the way you manufacture garments changed much over the years?
We have kept the way we make things the same for years now. There is only really one way to do things, and that is the right way!
Fully fashioned knitwear started way back in the early 20th century, and there are various different ways you can make knitwear but to be honest at Esk Valley we only know one way, and it is the proper way.
How important would you say is it to you to work with designers such as Nigel?
Working with Nigel and the other designers we work with is really important for the factory. It keeps it buoyant, fresh and keeps the ladies really into their work. Every year it is something different, new colours, new designs, which keeps it progressive. It is not just a ‘sausage machine’ churning out the same stuff every time; it is almost like a little Artisan workshop here. It is very hands on and I think that is what makes it really special.