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The Drapers Interview: Keith Walker, Linton Tweeds

In the latest of our Home Made series, we visit Carlisle’s Linton Tweeds, Chanel’s fabric manufacturer of choice.

Keith Walker, managing director of Linton Tweeds.

Keith Walker, managing director of Linton Tweeds.

Situated on the edge of the Lake District, Carlisle had a thriving textile industry in the early 19th century, thanks to the plentiful supply of wool, water power and coal.
Close to the city centre is Shaddon Mills, at one time the largest cotton mill in England. The main mill has been converted into housing, but beside it are a series of low red brick buildings with the triangular-shaped roof of a weaving shed, designed to let light flood down to the looms below.

Running 16 hours a day, the 14 looms in these sheds belong to 103-year-old business Linton Tweeds, a weaver of premium cloth for the likes of Jigsaw, Lanvin and its biggest client Chanel, which accounts for a third of production.

At the autumn 15 Paris Fashion Week catwalk the appetite for wool-rich tweeds was strong. Chanel reworked its signature tweed skirt suit, creating cropped blouson jackets and sporty mid-length skirts. Dior favoured tweed coats, Balenciaga went for embellished tweed jumpsuits, and ladylike tweed dresses were seen at Stella McCartney. With tweed popularity up, now is a good time for UK weavers, and at the forefront is Linton Tweeds.

The mill’s continued popularity among designers helped its turnover reach £5m in 2014, the slight decline from a stable base of £5.1m in 2013 attributed to general fluctuations in demand at the high end of fashion. This year’s turnover is, however, already running 15% ahead of 2014.

The company specialises in novelty, fantasy fabrics, which managing director Keith Walker describes as “pushing the edge of practicality”. The mill weaves with ribbons, sequins and strips of different fabrics to create a unique effect.

Linton Tweeds is known for its colourful, textural piece-dyed cloth with a bouclé surface, popularised by Coco Chanel, who was introduced to founder William Linton in the 1920s. Due to the loose weave and novelty textures, 99% of Linton Tweeds’ fabric is used for womenswear, although US designer Thom Browne is among its big menswear customers.

To satisfy its customers’ high standards, Linton Tweeds continuously innovates. In September it will unveil a series of new weaves for autumn 16, created using PosiLeno technology. Designed by German textile machinery manufacturer Groz-Beckert, the PosiLeno lifting frames attach to the loom, allowing the weaver to interlace a lightweight leno weave (whereby two warp yarns are twisted around the weft yarns to create a sheer fabric) with a traditional heavier dobby weave (a small geometric weave that creates added texture), resulting in a greater variety of cloths.

“The PosiLeno means we can produce more innovative fabrics and use old yarns in a completely new weave,” says Walker, leaning animatedly across the boardroom table in a smart blue and white striped shirt and charcoal grey wool jacket. “We can give the weave the appearance of movement. This technology opens up the kinds of techniques used by knitwear designers, like creating more open weaves for lighter-weight fabrics. I’m very excited about it.”

There are two handweavers on site dedicated to fabric development. A third of all production is bespoke work for customers, while the other two thirds are Linton Tweeds’ original patterns. The mill offers sampling of between six to 11 metres, which is typically turned around in five to six weeks.

Innovation is also achieved through the choice of yarns. The mill buys basic wool yarns from Yorkshire spinners and puts its own twist into the yarn using one of the four twisting machines on site.

“By creating our own yarns we can produce exclusive fabrics,” Walker explains. “For our fancy yarns we look worldwide for anything that’s innovative and unique, buying from spinners in Italy, Germany, Japan and France. If we find something new it doesn’t matter where it comes from; we want to create niche, innovative cloths.”

A third of each cloth is made from the 100% wool yarn twisted on site, while the other two thirds can be any yarn of Linton Tweed’s choosing, thereby creating highly complex constructions.

Weaving at Linton Tweeds.

Weaving at Linton Tweeds.

The 60,000 sq ft mill site has five pressure package dyeing machines. The white yarn can be dyed before weaving, or woven and then dyed as a piece of fabric (piece dyed). The fabric is then washed after being twisted to give a soft handle, or blow washed, which is a gentler process for delicate fabric.

As the majority of Linton Tweeds’ customers are looking for fancy, textural cloth, the fabric is usually finished in a steam relax dryer, which blows steam over the surface to maintain the texture. To achieve a smoother finish a steam press is applied.

Seventy people work in production, alongside four full-time designers. This skills base is essential to producing complex textiles, says Walker. “Our fabrics are so complex that each cloth might wash or dry differently, so it needs to be treated in a bespoke manner by staff who understand the cloth.”

The average weight of Linton Tweeds’ fabric is 300 grams per square metre (about 9 ounces per square yard), but the mill can produce lighter or heavier weights to suit the 28 countries it supplies.

UK Fashion & Textile Association textile consultant Beryl Gibson appreciates the textural, handwoven quality of Linton Tweeds: “The overall artisan look of its fabrics is desirable and timeless. The mill also uses colour in a very confident way,” she says.

“The highly tactile and intricate patterns, as well as the sometimes exotic-looking novelty yarns, can be viewed in the same way as costume jewellery, to accessorise and enhance the total fashion look, something designers like Chanel love to showcase.”

The collection is split into three streams. The high-end Linton range focuses on creativity, offering the customer any weave they desire (averaging £20 a metre). Launched in 1996, the Ullswater range is a more commercial alternative, using fewer yarns and weave settings (averaging £14 a metre). Both collections are available at a minimum of 50 metres, on a turnaround of 10 to 12 weeks.    

The other string to the mill’s bow is Linton Direct, a limited edition collection of fabrics designed using surplus yarn. Established in 2010, Linton Direct is the fastest-growing part of the business. Unlike the Linton and Ullswater lines, Linton Direct is sold online and through the on-site showroom at Shaddon Mills. The minimum order is one metre, with prices from £18 to £38 a metre.

“We might only have enough yarns to make 32 metres, so these are limited edition quantities,” Walker explains. “Linton Direct customers range from ladies who want a couple of metres to make their own jacket to small businesses buying fabric wholesale or to make up completed garments.”

Chanel is Linton Tweeds’ biggest customer for its premium cloths. “Perhaps it’s a little worrying that one customer receives over a third of everything we do,” Walker reflects. “As Chanel is using so many of our fabrics, our top export destination is France, followed by Japan and the US, where we’re growing quickly. We still do well in the UK with brands like Jigsaw, Jaeger, Aquascutum and John Rocha.”

Jigsaw head of fabric development, sourcing and buying Brigitte Atkinson prizes the quality: “We’ve worked with Linton Tweeds for many years as its fabrics are unique, intricate and made in the UK. Our customer can see the value of these jewel-like tweeds, which we use for jackets, dresses, skirts and bags.”

Work on one of Linton Tweeds' 14 looms.

Work on one of Linton Tweeds’ 14 looms.

Premium US menswear and womenswear label Rag & Bone first started working with Linton Tweeds in autumn 13. “Linton is just straight old-school cool,” says its founder Marcus Wainwright. “Generally, people associate it with Chanel, but we’ve twisted it for our girl. The rubber and paper yarns make the tweeds less ‘lady’ and more street, in keeping with our downtown vibe. We use Linton Tweeds for jackets, skirts and outerwear pieces, which typically retail for $695 to $1,200 (£459 to £792).”

Linton Direct is driving international sales to countries as diverse as Canada, Singapore and Russia. Even so, Walker is surprised by the online success. “I didn’t think anyone would buy novelty fabrics online without having touched the fabric first as texture is so important,” he says. “We try to be as closed loop as possible, so we also sell small amounts of yarn online.”

Online is growing in importance for Linton Tweeds. The mill is active on Twitter and Facebook, while the Linton Loves blog is central to the relaunched website that goes live on May 15. The new website will also sell the company’s first scarf range (retail £50, wholesale £16). The two styles - in 100% lambswool and 95% lambswool, 5% moose hair - are woven in black and white using the PosiLeno technology, to show off Linton Tweeds’ weaving creativity.

From the installation of the first looms to blogging about Paris Fashion Week, the mill has come a long way since Scotsman William Linton opened it in 1912. As well as Coco Chanel in the 1920s, the textured cloth also found fans across the Atlantic; the Linton family would sail to the US, selling their fabric to 12 key clients.

Walker’s father Leslie joined as mill manager in 1969, with the aim of increasing efficiencies. He became managing director in 1972, when the US market was shrinking and the business needed an alternative revenue stream. Leslie looked east, tapping into the Japanese market, which quickly replaced the US as the biggest market in value terms. The Walker family became shareholders in the early 1970s and control 94% of company shares, with the other 6% held by the descendants of the Linton family.

In 1988 Keith Walker joined Linton Tweeds as commercial director, having grown up working in the yarn store in the summer holidays. In 1994 he was made managing director after his father Leslie retired to the role of non-executive chairman. The family connection continues with Keith’s sons Duncan and Ross, who have joined the mill in loom planning and marketing for Linton Direct.

With the help of his sons and the 70-strong team, Walker’s vision is to build Linton Tweeds into a recognisable brand. “Even though we’re a business to business company, I want people to know our name and start demanding our fabrics, which is already the case in Japan. I want consumers to know their garment is made from Linton Tweeds,” he says with pride.

This ambition looks set to be realised with the growing popularity of Linton Direct among a global audience. The online market, coupled with longstanding relationships with the likes of Chanel, are set to underpin the mill’s future success.  

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