KNITTING makes a key contribution to Scotland’s identity and economy. The latest exhibition at Dovecot Studios in Edinburgh – KNITWEAR Chanel to Westwood – charts more than 100 years of fashion knitwear. It aims to show how creative, inventive, technical and emotive the medium is.

Setting knitwear in the context of a gallery is an exciting opportunity to make connections between the industry and the art of knitwear now. The exhibition has three key strands – a decade-by-decade visual history; the personal stories of the people who wore these clothes; and the social, cultural and economic history of fashion.

Designers, makers and garments that feature include: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s Jazz Age jersey suits, Pringle of Scotland twinset, Rudi Gernreich’s experimental sportswear, Bill Gibb’s romantic counter-culture, Missoni zigzags, Sonia Rykiel’s batwing sleeves, subversive sweaters by Vivienne Westwood, Rei Kawakubo’s experimental knits for Comme des Garcons and Julien MacDonald’s glamorous dresses.

It is an inspiring mix of highly individual approaches to materials, silhouette, colour and technology.

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Knitted items retain an immediacy and an association with those who wear or create them. The exhibition has a strong personal element because it draws on the archive of Mark and Cleo Butterfield, whose love for knitted garments co-exists with their work as some of the UK’s most important collectors of antique and vintage fashion.

As a result, the selection also features anonymous and emotional hand knits and crocheted pieces, including a rare Edwardian underskirt and “make do and mend” wartime patterns using multi-coloured recycled yarns.

The importance of knitwear to Scotland is highlighted by Fair Isle, the highly patterned jumpers knitted in the Shetlands. Fair Isle jumpers were originally a craft that supplemented island income. The earliest museum examples date to the mid-19th century. Yet from the moment the future Edward VIII – later the Duke of Windsor – stepped out to play golf in a Fair Isle in St Andrews in 1922, his sartorial style became news.

From the 1920s onwards, Shetland knitters diversified into tank tops, hats and gloves and increased production. Versions of their multi-coloured Fair Isle patterns have become a mainstay of international fashion companies, from Ralph Lauren and Burberry to a current highly advertised collection by Celine.

Yet these designer versions are more likely to use merino wool or cashmere. An authentic Fair Isle will use Shetland wool, where the clip of local lambs in the colder Scottish climate produces a heavier yarn.

Arguably, Scotland’s best-known fashion knitwear brand is Pringle of Scotland. It was founded in the Borders by Robert Pringle in 1815, and his descendants lay claim to being the first to introduce lace edging to lingerie in the first decade of the 20th century, whereby underwear became outerwear. They also invented both the twinset and the intarsia design, more commonly known as the Argyle pattern.

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Pringle has also successfully built a canny association with golf. From its sponsorship of the Ryder Cup golf shirt to various key players, it has successfully intertwined Scotland’s global reputation for the sport with the profile of its sweaters.

Many other Scottish knitwear businesses have benefited from both royal connections and a reputation for quality. Ballantyne, Hogg of Hawick, Dalkeith, Lyle & Scott and Johnstons of Elgin are just a few of the names that have capitalised on the “Made in Scotland” brand values and found popularity overseas, especially in America. Today, more that half of Scottish textile production is for luxury export goods and, alongside the exhibition, research is currently under way at Glasgow University to explore the wider relevance of wool and knitting to Scotland.

The “Fleece to Fashion” project is looking both at piecework knitted at home to big business Chanel, which owns and manufactures knitwear at the Borders-based firm Barrie, to better understand the contemporary relevance of knitting to the Scottish economy.

KNITWEAR Chanel to Westwood has a clear chronological structure but some of the historical pieces feel surprisingly modern. To connect with the contemporary, the Dovecot shop has reached out to designer-makers to feature their work.

Lockdown and high-profile figures such as Tom Daley have not only popularised knitting from home, but also raised awareness of what goes into a knitted garment and how highly to value it.

The Dovecot shop showcase includes La Fetiche, Di Gilpin, Jennifer Kent, Todd & Duncan and Annie Hall, plus patterns, knitting needles and yarn by Wool & The Gang. The high-tech features too, with Knit One – a new custom Loop app, which will be launched at Dovecot in early November.

It offers visitors a chance to design and buy a custom knitted scarf or blanket – a fresh take on the innovation that runs throughout the exhibition.

Celia Joicey is director of Dovecot Studios. KNITWEAR Chanel to Westwood runs until March 11, 2023