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DC DALGLIESH IN THE TARTAN EMPIRE

A GREAT ENTREPRENEURIAL STORY, WITH TARTAN WORN BY CLIENTS OF THE ORDER OF THE QUEEN AND GRACE KELLY

by Fabrizio de' Marinis - Ph. Courtesy DC Dalgliesh
July 29th, 2014
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A SCOTTISH REALM OF TRADITION AND INNOVATION

“There are few industries left where speed and scale are not celebrated. Bigger, faster, stronger is now the way of the world. But not in the whole world. There are a band of champions, few in number, who fiercely protect the values upon which all industry was once built – authenticity, quality and integrity. Champions who create products that are part of a story much richer than anything mass produced. Products afforded the time they deserve. Products with soul”. These profound reflections tell us a great deal about the history and commitment to manufacturing of the company, D.C. Dalgliesh, Dunsdale Mill – Selkirk, TD7 5EB – Scotland, UK. “The world’s only hand-crafted Tartan mill”.

It is a motto that they scrupulously abide by, day in and day out − “Our fabrics are more than just their materials”. Along this path, tradition and innovation meet. We decided to interview Nick FiddesAD of D.C. Dalgliesh − and are delighted to publish his replies, as we think back to our marvellous journey to the Empire of Tartan, published in Bespoke Magazine no. 9, where various images ( p. 72-73-82-97-98) of this historic Scottish company appeared.

Tell us about the history, values and traditions of your company.
“DC Dalgliesh was founded in 1947 by Dixon Colton Dalgliesh”, says Nick Fiddes − a leading Scottish academic authority on tartan. “He set up in business only because he was unable to find any existing weaver producing fabrics to the standards he demanded. Word of his superior products quickly spread, assisted by his wife, Anne, who travelled Europe attending shows and meeting leading designers. They worked with names like Vivienne Westwood, Dior, and Ricci, and were worn by celebrity customers from the Queen to Grace Kelly.
Tragically Anne’s life was cut short by a traffic accident in the 1960s, and soon afterwards Dixon handed the firm down to his son Kenneth. He continued the tradition of uncompromising quality. But without Anne’s fashion drive, he steered the firm in a more traditional direction, specialising in Highlandwear, Scottish Dance, and Corporate wear. By retaining hand-crafting and weaving on traditional shuttle looms, they could supply unique tartans even in short lengths, while more mechanised weavers produced only in volume. So as other small mills closed one by one, DC Dalgliesh became the only affordable source of 95% of family tartans. This was of vital importance to Scottish heritage.
During the 2011 recession, the firm was itself rescued from closure by the directors of its largest customer, Scotweb – a tartan retailing pioneer. They recognised the need to push DC Dalgliesh back into the high end markets where its success had begun, and set about relaunching the brand with a fresh new identity, new signature fabrics designed to appeal to contemporary buyers, and a new range of products created to show our fabrics in a relevant and exciting light”.

What about DC Dalgliesh’s strategies and policies for the company’s foreign markets?
“For years our firm was renowned amongst tartan lovers in the UK and North America, but hardly known elsewhere. We believe our mix of artisanal quality with authentic provinence and beautiful design should find appreciative buyers in many parts of the world – particularly in the EU and Asia. So at this point our priority is not to target geographical markets. It is to identify and develop key partnerships with appropriate brands anywhere, to re-establish our name as the world’s leading tartan specialists.
We are in the fortunate position where we can build on our specialist skills to offer a far wider range of fabrics than before, and do so very competitively. We produce our fabrics on looms that range from hundred-year-old hand looms (with motors added!) for short lengths, to the most modern computerised machines for large volumes. So in addition to the worsted wools and pure spun silks on which our reputation was built, we’re now diversifying into new materials such as luxury cashmere and tweed (both of which Scotland is already famed for). With our depth of experience and expert services, combined with Scotland’s reputation for quality and integrity, we think we’re well placed to find customers almost anywhere.
Our main constraint at this point is that as a small family company, we have nothing like the resources to pursue every opportunity. We might consider external investment. But first we need to build our business a little further, through carefully chosen partnerships, wherever these might be. Rather than doing too much too soon, it’s important to us to grow without undermining the qualities that make this company special”.

A history of creators of trends.
“Tartans (or plaids) are widely loved. But it’s true that this market also has a reputation for being a bit old-fashioned. Our firm was guilty of that too. But we mean to change this! Partly we can do this through the products we create, and the brands with whom we partner. But we’re going much further.
We have asked big questions of our design team to re-imagine what tartan can be. Traditional tartans are almost always woven in just three colour palettes called Modern (strong) Ancient (faded) and Reproduction (weathered) – the last of which Dixon Dalgliesh invented back in the 1950s. We want to innovate again, just as he did then, and create exciting new palettes, including seasonal shades to offer on-trend fabrics. And sometimes it’s about using traditional fabrics in surprising new ways, like upholstering furniture with our Highland Dance fabrics! The early response to our new looks has been overwhelmingly positive, but we’ve far more ideas and plans to come.
It’s not just about colour. It’s also pattern. Traditional family tartans follow a bit of a formula, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We still cherish our historical origins. But there’s so much more you can do with the principles of tartan. So for our relaunch, for example, we’ve created a new Signature pattern, unlike anything seen before, which we are extending into a whole family of complementary fabrics, not all tartan. Again, it’s early days, but the response has been wonderful”.

How does DC Dalgliesh relate to the world of fashion?
“This is an interesting question for us. In some ways, we stand for the opposite of fashion. We’ll be moving with the times and responding to trends more than before. But we want our designs – including our innovative new ones – to be timeless and enduring. We come from a tradition where garments such as kilts would not just be worn for years but actually be passed down from parent to child. So it’s certainly not ‘throwaway’ fashion.
Fortunately one of the big trends at the moment is for ‘slow fashion’, with the rise of environmental awareness. And that’s something we’re big on too. Our supply chain is almost entirely local, and we waste very little. We’re genuinely low-impact in our processes. So we think we’ve a good story to tell. And we’re sure there are plenty of potential partners in the fashion industry who will be thinking the same way”.

A symbol in the tradition of tartan. History and innovation.
DC Dalgliesh is steeped in history, and this must always be somewhere at the heart of what we do. When we took over the business, we were knocked out by the names that the previous owners kept casually mentioning, hardly realising their importance. And even in the three years or so since, whilst we’ve hardly been marketing our services while putting our energies into reorganising behind the scenes, we’ve produced tartans for Google’s launch of their new UK headquarters, for Pixar’s Brave premieres (including on stage at the Oscars) and for Kate Middleton who wears our hand-knotted silk scarf regularly, including at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee on the Thames.
The traditional products on which we built our reputation will always be our foundation. But a great thing about Scottish traditions is that they aren’t fossilised; they live and change. Kilts aren’t worn only by historical enthusiasts, but at dances, football matches, and weddings. And hundreds of new tartans are registered every year, mostly from far beyond Scotland. There’s no other textile which proclaims its wearer’s social identity from a distance so powerfully or beautifully. In fact most tartans nowadays are designed for businesses, events, clubs, and so on, to unite and inspire their members.
Tartan is Scotland’s gift to the world. And we see DC Dalgliesh as the company that can show the world how tartan can be designed, used, and worn in countless ways unimagined until now. This is a journey that’s only just started”.

Bespoke traditions and services.
“Almost everything we do is bespoke. Even when weaving a single garment length for an individual customer, we’ll let the buyer specify almost anything. This can mean choosing particular yarn shades (with the option of special dying, even for small volumes), adjusting the sett size or pattern, or even creating a brand new tartan from scratch, either using Scotweb’s online tartan design feature, or our own in-house design team.
Commercial clients can also ask for a special material composition or treatment, perhaps mixing yarns, or giving their fabric a particular finish (which can be physical like raising or pressing, or else chemical such as fireproofing). We’re lucky that our part of the Scottish Borders is still a sort of textiles ecosystem. So if we can’t do it on the premises we can just pop along the road. We have two dye houses on our street! Scotland’s largest finishing specialists is within ten minutes drive, as is the country’s main textiles university for more specialist research.
Likewise, bespoke garment making is in our genes. Kilt making was the heart of this business for decades, and a proper kilt can only ever be fully made to measure. So it is only natural for us to extend this approach to our new garment ranges. This doesn’t just mean fitting individual customers. We’re often asked to adjust the specifications of skirts and jackets to meet commercial clients’ needs, or create brand new designs on demand”.

DC Dalgliesh’s products and fabrics.
“Long before our rescue from closure, DC Dalgliesh enjoyed an outstanding reputation for excellence, which gave us confidence we’d find new markets. We’re continuing this tradition of uncompromising quality, but extending both our product and fabric ranges far beyond the traditional. All the advice from industry experts was to specialise in either menswear, or women’s wear, or interiors. But our fabrics are fabulous for all of these markets, so we’ve gone our own way and done them all! We want to show the amazing diversity of tartan, and showcase our capabilities.
So far this encompasses both furniture and soft furnishings, ladies’ wear from blazers to bags to wraps (our signature silks are spectacular!), and menswear from suits to incredible leather jackets. They all use our fabrics somewhere. And they’re all manufactured locally, either on our premises or by partner companies we’ve mostly worked with for years.
So far our collections are mostly about showing off the fabrics in lovely new ways. But we’re already starting work on the next phase, which will be about launching our own unique look in garments. The exciting thing here is that we not only have decades of back-catalogue to plunder for inspirations, but an entire national history of dress styles that has hardly been explored. There’s one aspect of this from centuries ago which we can’t reveal yet but we think will form the backbone of wonderful collections for years to come. It’s a really exciting time, and just amazing to have all these resources at our fingertips”.

Tell us about DC Dalgliesh’s stock wool shades.
“At present we stock around 100 shades in Pure New Wool (in two weights each) plus a good range in Pure Spun Silk. This is enough to give us the flexibility to match most needs off-the-shelf, which in turn means that when necessary we might turn around a job in as little as a couple of weeks instead of the normal 2 months or more.
One of the tasks we took on when restructuring the business after our takeover was to update the yarn ranges, which were then mostly chosen for traditional tartans. We’ve added many new shades to enable fresher designs, and we expect to continue this process. But it’s important for continuity (so that regular customers can match fabrics purchased years ago) that we don’t change too much. So we intend to introduce on-trend seasonal yarns which will only be listed for limited periods.
Of course, we can also dye to order, using state of the art spectroscopic equipment to analyse a customer’s sample. This is mostly demanded by corporate clients for whom brand identity is everything. So it’s great that we can combine hi-tech with good old-fashioned personal service, to continue the company’s tradition of delivering to the highest standards”.

www.dcdalgliesh.co.uk

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