TOAST Magazine

The Makers of our Fair Isle Sweaters

STYLE & STORIES

Harley of Scotland was established in 1929. It is a third generation, family-run knitwear manufacturer, famous for its Fair Isle. TOAST works closely with Adam Harley and his daughter Susannah to create our own Fair Isle knits. Like many of our makers, theirs is an interesting history to tell... 

“It all began with my grandfather, Peter Harley.” Susannah says, gesturing towards an oil painting hanging on the wall behind her. The man in the painting has thick white hair, swept to the side, and a knowing, gentle smile. Beyond him lies a seascape, pale evening sunlight catching on calm, silvery waters. A fishing boat is returning with the day’s catch and a small plume of smoke rises from its red chimney. “It’s the view from Peterhead”, Susannah explains, “and the fishing boat’s a reference to his past. My grandfather started off as a fisherman. Knitwear came later.” 

Peterhead, where the Harley factory was first built in 1929 and remains to this day, is a small harbour town, encircling a bay. It lies on the easternmost point of mainland Scotland, some 45km north of Aberdeen. There has been a fishing harbour at Peterhead for more than 400 years and the trade is deeply ingrained in the community.

That Peter Harley was a fisherman is perhaps unremarkable; all his ancestors before him were involved in fishing. What is remarkable is how he veered so far from a well trodden path, going on to become a renowned knitwear manufacturer. But the answer, I soon learn, lies at sea. 

"Knitwear is bound into the traditions of fisher folk"

“As a fisherman my grandfather travelled extensively, often visiting Orkney and Shetland. And it was on Fair Isle that he first observed fisherwomen hand knitting Fair Isle sweaters. They’d dye and spin the wool from the sheep that grazed the land, and use the yarn to knit sweaters in varied, intricate patterns.”

“Knitwear is bound into the traditions of fisher folk,” Susannah goes on to say. “The climate is harsh and warmth is vital, and the patterns of the Fair Isle sweaters were incredibly important. Each region had its own pattern and so they acted as markers, if you will. It’s a little morbid, I know, but the waters around the North Sea can be savage. The pattern helped to identify which region the fisherman came from.” 

As a talented artist, a “creative soul”, Peter was drawn to the complex variations of the designs and their inherent beauty. “He was mechanical too, and so, in a way, a knitting business was the perfect marriage of both his interests.” Ambitiously, he gave up the fishing and embarked on a new livelihood.

“He didn’t go straight into Fair Isle, though” Susannah adds. His first venture into knitting began a little closer to home with fisherman’s socks. “They were knitted with thick, oily wool and were, no doubt,” Susannah laughs, “very scratchy. But they were exceptionally warm and hardwearing. And that’s what was important back then."

It was through his success with socks that Peter was able to buy an old herring yard in the late 1920s, building upon it a small factory. Sourcing yarn from local spinners, established in 1798, he began creating his own Fair Isle sweaters. Not for fisherman this time, but for the domestic market – the Duke of Windsor had been seen sporting a Fair Isle knit, popularising the style overnight.

As we talk Susannah shows me the Fair Isle sweaters that Harley has come to create. They are knitted from soft, lightweight yarns and, unlike the subtly hued traditional Fair Isles, come in glorious arrangements of colour and pattern. 

“Quite a lot has changed since my grandfather’s time,” says Susannah, casting her gaze over the factory floor. “Before my father, Adam, joined the business in 1965 our furthest flung export market was Shetland. Now it’s North America and Japan... And absolutely everything used to be done by hand.”

“The process used to be very slow and incredibly labour intensive. And there was a lot of wastage as pieces were knitted in squares and then cut to shape”. Today the majority of their knitwear is knitted “in the round” by knitting machines and, amazingly, there is no wastage. “The laborious, and very technical part is programming the knitting machines,” says John, who has worked for Harley since 1985. “But now we can make a complete sweater in just over thirty minutes,” he grins. As he speaks the TOAST Fair Isle sweater (pictured in these images) emerges from beneath a knitting machine. 

Despite the huge change, some processes remain the same. “We still finish each garment by hand, mill it, do the final pressing and the tabbing”, says Susannah. “Peterhead has some of the softest waters in Scotland, so milling it in these waters gives a lovely hand feel to the garments.” And they still use the same local spinners that Peter sourced all those years ago. “There’s something about the way J C Rennie spin and dye yarn. They understand raw wool, how it should look and handle and they can create colour like nobody else. If you look at one of their melanges you’ll see so many variations within it.” She picks up one of the yarns used in the TOAST sweater. “Can you see the shades of terracotta, ochre, rust? It’s heathery and beautiful, just like the natural fleece of a sheep.” 

There is an obvious reverence for craftsmanship and skill at Harley. A reverence for traditions passed down, for the history of patterns and techniques, but also for advancement and for the merits of technology. “I think my grandfather would be pretty awe-struck if he could see it now,” laughs Susannah. “But I think, I know... he’d be proud.”

Words by Emily Mears. Photography by Roo Lewis. (Portraits show Adam Harley and John Watson.)

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