The Gairloch Pattern
The origins of the home knitting industry in Gairloch can be traced back to the 1800s. Elsewhere in Britain, the wool industry had become largely mechanised by this time. But in the Highlands, wool was still being shorn, spun and knitted by hand - a ‘home’ industry. The wool used was from sheep kept on the croft. Teasing, carding, spinning and dyeing were all done at home, with the colours obtained from natural dyes. Men wove the spun wool into patterned tweed.
In 1836 Sir Francis Mackenzie, 12th laird of Gairloch, married his second wife Mary Hanbury, the mother of Osgood Mackenzie of Inverewe. Under her influence, a localised knitting industry thrived. She employed a lady from Skye to instruct twelve young women in knitting ‘nice stockings with dice and other fancy patterns’. After her husband died in 1843, she became a trustee of the Estate and lived for ten years at Flowerdale – the Gairloch home of the Mackenzies. During this time, she threw her energies into establishing the manufacture and export of quality Gairloch stockings.
The Dowager Lady Mackenzie organised and trained spinners, dyers and knitters and promoted their craft further afield. The sale of Gairloch stockings became an important source of income for crofting families, particularly during the potato famine years of the later 1840s.
A letter written by Dr John Mackenzie, the Estate factor (and her brother-in-law), in 1847 to the Destitution Board in Edinburgh requested a grant towards ‘Materials for Female Employment’ as Lady Mackenzie ‘has got above 100 women employed spinning wool who work up about 35 stones per week which is then knitted into stockings’. He suggested that a supply of wool would ‘keep these women employed and enable us to give them some new clothing’.
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Gairloch hose drying in the bothy at Poca Buidhe. Image courtesy of Alex Gray Muir.
Gairloch Pattern embellished with the caberfeidh of the Mackenzies.
Knitting chart for Gairloch Pattern waistcoat from knitwear and gift shop Catherine of Inverness.
Sold by Kirk Hand Weave, Gairloch
Katie Mackenzie and Joan Smith wear Gairloch Pattern waistcoats knitted by Becca Macaulay.
Gairloch Pattern stocking knitted by Becca Macaulay. Photo by Jim Dunn.
Repeating pattern over 30 stitiches.
Quality Gairloch hose
Lady Mackenzie left Flowerdale when her stepson, Sir Kenneth, came of age and took on the Estate responsibilities himself. He put his gamekeeper, a Mr George Ross, in charge of superintending the Gairloch stocking industry. By the late 1800s, large quantities of Gairloch stockings were being sold locally to tourists, and exported to Inverness, Edinburgh and even London. An article published on behalf of the Scottish Home Industries Association in 1895 describes the Gairloch stockings in glowing fashion:
"Nothing can beat good Gairloch stockings. Their superiority is well known to all who are in the habit of wearing them, for they have an elasticity and a softness which are only found in Shetland hose, but are much more durable."
With the establishment of the Highland Home Industries Association in 1889, knitters were able to sell their produce for money, rather than trading them with merchants for goods. It has been estimated that the annual value of the exports from the area was at least £500 by the end of the 1800s.
Revival of the Pattern
Gairloch stockings were originally knitted in a wide variety of patterns and colours, some imitating tartan. The double-diamond ‘dice’ design became the favourite and is what we now know as the Gairloch Pattern. The pattern was revived in the 1970s by Becca Macaulay of Opinan who was a great knitter. Gairloch shops, such as the Kirk Hand Weave, employed local knitters right up until the 1980s to knit garments in the Gairloch Pattern, some of which are now in Gairloch Museum’s collection. In 2015 the Museum published a modern knitting pattern for Gairloch Pattern Stockings, based on these examples. To celebrate Highland Threads, a new headband pattern has been released. These patterns can be purchased in the Museum shop and on Ravelry
Design and technique
The Gairloch Pattern is knitted in stranded colourwork technique with two contrasting colours. The pattern repeats in both horizontal and vertical directions, but can also be worked to stand alone as a single diamond. Garments in Gairloch Museum’s collection illustrate the variety of the design. Sometimes an embellishment appears within the diamond, such as a stag’s head or a cross. The size of the diamond can be altered to fit the number of stitches in the garment. A pair of children’s stockings in the collection has a very small diamond pattern. The stockings are usually knitted on four needles from the top down. Keeping the pattern correct whilst gradually reducing the girth of the leg is the most challenging part of the knit.
The garments knitted in the Gairloch Pattern in the Gairloch Museum’s collection are a record of its use by local knitters over the past hundred years, a use that still continues to this day. Gairloch Pattern knitting is part of the intangible cultural heritage of our area. It is an example of human creativity and ingenuity embedded in our community, which we are delighted to share with knitters around the world.