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Scottish Knits Turn to Parisian Style at Chanel

The finest Scottish cashmere puts a soft spin on Parisian sophistication at Chanel.

Transforming the concept of couture from stuffy and ornamental to accessible and functional was one of the many ways in which the legendary Gabrielle Chanel forever revolutionized the fashion industry. Her talent for seeing beauty in basics, and sophistication in simplicity changed women’s clothing forever; bringing in fabrics and cuts previously reserved for menswear, in which Gabrielle saw graceful, dynamic lines and freedom of movement. Her affinity for jersey is well-known; but the designer also breathed new life into knitwear; elevating the rough, chunky sweaters originally worn by fishermen into a new era of elegance.

Chanel Archive combination
Top: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and her partner, Arthur “Boy” Capel (fourth left) by the storefront of the Deauville CHANEL boutique in 1913. Bottom, left to right: Dancers from the Le Train Bleu ballet donning knitted sportswear costumes designed for them by Chanel; Chanel with her frequent sailing companion, the Duke of Westminster, on his yacht “The Flying Cloud” in 1928; Chanel at the entrance to her boutique in Deauville, 1913; Chanel with her aunt Audrienne in front of the Deauville boutique.

Knits take their name from the fabric, cotton, silk, or wool, knitted from a single thread of yarn where stitches interlace. Gabrielle’s first love of the textile came in the form of borrowing the comfortable cardigans of her beloved, English businessman Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, to curl up in or toss over her shoulders. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Chanel began work on her own refined version of knitwear, taking inspiration from her active lifestyle: sweaters and cardigans made from the finest Scottish Fair Isle cashmere that would complement her days spent sailing, hunting, and golfing with the Duke of Westminster.

Chanel knitwear
Left: Métiers d’art 2013/14 collection. The traditional Chanel tweed took on Americana flavor in a boxy chain-trimmed cardigan. Right: Métiers d’art 2016/17 Paris Cosmopolite collection. The sophisticated luxe of gold embroidery upon a black wool pullover pays homage to the show’s theme of the Ritz Paris and the elegance of vintage evening wear.

Scotland has long been world renowned for its fine cashmere, and leading its way is Barrie: a Scottish cashmere producer that got its start in 1903 as a factory specializing in the production of stockings, followed by producing socks and undergarments for soldiers during World War I. The company’s tight collaboration with Chanel took roots in the 1920s, when they worked with Gabrielle to create sweaters and cardigans interpreted for ladies’ wear. In the 1930s, one of Chanel’s classic mainstays, the twin set featuring a cashmere shell and a cardigan, was born.

Chanel knitwear
Left: Cruise 2017/18 collection. Set against a backdrop of ancient Greek ruins, the show’s flowing, draped silhouettes, such as this one in a porcelain-white fluid ribbed jersey, recalled the togas of goddesses and the pleats of statuesque columns. Middle: Fall/ Winter 2019/20 Ready-to-Wear collection. A palette of nuanced tones including winter white, beige, and navy blue sets a wintry yet warm backdrop to the collection’s knits and leathers. Right: Fall/ Winter 2019/20 Ready-to-Wear collection. The yak wool dress and chunky cardigan bring forth a wintry mountain feel, with geometric patterns resembling snowflakes.

Today, Barrie has grown to a formidable workforce of nearly 300 employees; yet the brand maintains its artisan approach to cashmere production. Each garment requires over 40 steps to reach their exacting standards. The process starts with a supply of the world’s finest cashmere fibre, spun, then dyed by Scottish wool experts. The skeins have to be carefully catalogued: to ensure perfect color consistency, yarns from different batches cannot be mixed. The braiding then enters its first stage, where it is threaded onto the bars of the machine that will knit the garment before pieces of the garment are assembled.

The garment then gets a wash in the pure waters of the Scottish Borders region, where the factory sits, to lend the wool its signature softness. Finally, It is steamed back into shape and cut by artisan tailors. Details such as collars take eighteen months to bring to perfection. Each piece undergoes a series of rigorous quality checks before it is ready to be shipped off to Chanel, which has acquired Barrie in 2012 following nearly a century of collaboration.

Chanel knitwear
The making of Chanel’s signature two-tone cardigan begins with spools of fine cashmere thread, made from dyed and spun fiber strands, at the Barrie Knitwear factory in Hawick, Scotland. In the first step of cardigan making, the pockets and trim are knitted on a special machine, then threaded onto a metal bar made up of pins; a stage known as ‘bar filling’.
Chanel knitwear
From top to bottom and left to right: The cardigan’s back, two sleeves and the front are all stitched separately and then assembled. After getting washed in the region’s waters for softness, the garment is steamed back into its original shape. In one of the finishing touches, the black Barrie label is sewn in. Upon completion, the finished product is carefully examined for quality, verifying all proportions.
Chanel knitwear
Barrie Knitwear factory in Hawick

Under direction of Virginie Viard, Chanel continues to use Barrie knits in its couture lines. For the Fall-Winter 2020/21 Ready-to-Wear show, models traipsed down the runway in eye-catching cardigans of fuchsia, camel, and blue, embellished with symbolic details dear to Gabrielle herself. Another look featured a wool sweater with a fine gold brass chain woven into the knit to add subtle shine. The final statement look showed a black cashmere cardigan with a dramatic shawl collar, paired with mini shorts.

Chanel knitwear
From top to bottom and left to right: Métiers d’art 2019/20 Paris 31 rue Cambon collection. Geometric motifs in Chanel’s classic two-tone styling highlights an alpaca pullover and skirt duo. Métiers d’art 2019/20 Paris 31 rue Cambon collection. An alpaca and silk jacket tops a wool and cashmere pencil skirt, featuring the chain detail, one of Gabrielle Chanel’s codes honored by the collection. Métiers d’art 2019/20 Paris 31 rue Cambon collection. A matching set of a button-down cashmere skirt and cardigan lightens up for warmer days with short sleeves and a fresh peach shade. Spring/ Summer 2020/21 Ready to Wear collection. A matching viscose cardigan and shorts lighten up knits for the spring season with dynamic white trim and statement jewelry.

Both rooted in fine tradition and exceeding standards of craftsmanship, the ateliers of Chanel and Barrie have formed a perfect partnership; supporting each other on the constant mission to open new horizons and propel their creations into new exciting directions.

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