Diamonds are forever: 200 years of Pringle of Scotland

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Media captionGrace Kelly loved to wear Pringle knitwear

It has become an international fashion brand, famous for luxury cashmere knitwear, but Pringle of Scotland began life 200 years ago making underwear.

Its twinsets have been worn and loved by Hollywood film stars such as Grace Kelly and its Argyle diamond-patterned golf jumpers made the leap from the green to street fashion but Robert Pringle's firm began life in Hawick in 1815 making stockings and long-johns.

According to Alistair O'Neill, curator of the new exhibition Fully Fashioned: The Pringle of Scotland Story, at the National Museum of Scotland, it was not until after World War One that Pringle began to make its name in cardigans and jumpers.

And despite being a long way from the cutting edge of European fashion, the Scottish Borders firm led the way in the radical switch from restrictive corsets and impractical dresses to the modern wardrobe adopted by women.

Mr O'Neill says: "Going through surviving copies of British Vogue from 1918 and 1919, I found editorials that said women had got used to wearing their husband's cardigans as part of the war effort and they were not willing to give them up.

"They found them more practical for the kind of lifestyle they were now leading."

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Image caption Actress Tilda Swinton wears a jumper featuring the Argyle diamond

That new lifestyle also included new leisure activities for women such as golf.

As part of the exhibition, Mr O'Neill has traced Pringle's association with golf back further than previously thought.

"We found a lot of evidence of women wearing men's cardigans as part of the uniform they would play golf in," he says.

"People think the connection of Pringle and golf was post-World War Two but we have been able to show it was much earlier than that."

Pringle's expertise in luxury woollen undergarments put it at the forefront of creating the modern wardrobe in the 1920s, even ahead of Paris fashion.

"It is quite bizarre in a sense that the things you would wear under your clothes have become the very symbol of modernity for outerwear," he says.

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Image caption Golfer Nick Faldo was the face of Pringle in the 1980s

"If you look at what happened in French couture in the mid-1920s, with designers like Coco Chanel, they are proposing the simplification of women's dress, which is uncorseted, tubular in form and which borrows from the male wardrobe and also from working clothing.

"Some of the things Chanel was doing are not that different from the things we found being sold by Pringle a number of years earlier.

"It is quite amazing to think that Scotland was anticipating some of these trends that were then formalised a few years later in the heartlands of fashion."

Pringle's own jump from Scottish knitwear company to international brand can be said to have begun with the appointment of Otto Weisz as their first industrial designer in 1934.

Mr O'Neill says the Austrian was "crucial" to the company's success and its transformation.

Weisz brought a "modernist rigour" to the production, taking a keen interested in how garments fitted on the body.

"That sense of a Pringle jumper in the 1940s and 50s being form-fitting, very curvaceous, some people call it the lightbulb silhouette.

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Image caption The cover of US Vogue from 1955 with a model wearing Pringle of Scotland

"I suppose it anticipates that figure of the American popular film - the sweater girl.

"That idea of wearing knitwear that on the one hand looks modest and demure and on the other looks erotically-charged.

"Dressed but seemingly naked in terms of what you are revealing about your body."

Bill Rodger, marketing manager for the Pringle brand in the 1950s, later concentrated on the company's image.

He came up with idea of paying Scottish actresses, such as Margaret Lockwood and Moira Shearer, as ambassadors for the brand.

It also helped that international fashion icon and Hollywood actress Grace Kelly, later to become Princess Grace of Monaco, was a Pringle client.

Mr O'Neill says: "She loved wearing the twinsets because she could perform a scene in the jumper then when she was sitting off camera she could put the cardigan around her to keep her warm.

"It was a very functional but also quite chic look that she readily adopted.

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Image caption A French magazine in 1964 with an advert for Pringle cashmere knitwear

"That became a very potent advertisement."

For men, the adoption of the Argyle pattern has been an iconic image. It was first used in the 1920s but became a signature pattern on cardigans and jumpers from the 1960s.

Mr O'Neill says the design was not exclusive to Pringle but the firm has always been good at "picking up on iconic designs or patterns and mythologising them".

He says: "The Argyle has become a great symbol not only for Pringle but for what it says about Scottishness. Pringle has been very good at using leading image makers in order to crystallise an idea of what it stands for.

"It is not just seen as a purveyor of luxury knitwear but of being rooted in Scotland and rooted in Scotland's history."

However, it is an unavoidable fact that Pringle is not as rooted in Scotland as it once was.

Image copyright Pringle of Scotland
Image caption The Queen visiting Glebe mill in Hawick in 1962

The 1980s, which saw Pringle become a household name and a popular brand among golfers and football casuals, gave way to a steady decline as fashions and markets changed.

In 2000, the loss-making brand was sold to the Hong Kong-based Fang family and the end of production in Hawick followed.

Pringle still has a headquarters in Scotland and a factory shop in Hawick and produces some of its limited editions here, but much of the work now takes place in Italy.

Mr O'Neill says it was a victim of globalised clothing production which has affected the whole industry.

He says: "People have a very emotive response to Pringle because generations of people have worn it and have identified with.

"While we are aware of the fact that Pringle is no longer the employer it once was in the town of Hawick, it is no longer Scottish-owned, but it is an inescapable part of Scottish history."

Fully fashioned: The Pringle of Scotland story runs at the National Museum of Scotland from 10 April to 16 August.

Pringle through the ages


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Image copyright NAtional Museums of Scotland


Image copyright NAtional Museums of Scotland


Image copyright NAtional Museums of Scotland


Image copyright NAtional Museums of Scotland

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