Robin wants to take textile mill back to the future

Robin Elliot of Andrew Elliot (fine fabrics) Ltd. with the yarn twisting machine dated 1900.
Robin Elliot of Andrew Elliot (fine fabrics) Ltd. with the yarn twisting machine dated 1900.

THE cloth used to make one of the tweed jackets which have become the fashion trademark of Dr Who – as portrayed by Matt Smith – was woven in Selkirk on a loom built in 1928.

The shuttle-operated Dobcross loom is, however, not the oldest piece of textile equipment in the Forest Mill premises of Andrew Elliot Ltd – one of only a handful of commercial weaving businesses still operating in the Borders.

The time-travelling television doctor would need to set his Tardis for 1900 to see a brand new version of Boyd’s Patent Throstler, the machine on which the yarns of the jacket’s fabric were twisted together to produce a distinctive colour blend.

The nemesis of Dalek and Cymberman would have to return to 1838 to witness the construction of the mill, now a B-listed historic building, which stands amid derelict properties at the junction of Dunsdale Road and Mill Street.

The Dr Who analogy is particularly apt for the firm’s fabric designer, Robin Elliot, whose lovingly crafted tweeds have found their way, via London wholesalers, into the collections of top menswear fashion icons Paul Costello and Ralph Lauren.

Robin, 41, believes his company’s future rests with the remarkable past of a weaving industry on which towns such as Selkirk and Galashiels were shaped.

He is revisiting plans forged by his late father Andrew, who founded his business in a section of the old Roberts factory in 1972, to turn the two-storey whinstone mill into the Borders’ first textile heritage centre.

“We have five Dobcross looms all dating from the 1920s, a large warping machine from the 1940s and, of course, our twisting machine which is now over a century old,” Robin told us this week.

He went on: “It is rare to have such old equipment still in perfect working order, but unfortunately the building is falling into disrepair.

“There’s only myself and weaver Rob Beaton, who has been with us since my dad founded the company, so we could easily continue the famous Andrew Elliot brand from much smaller and more modern premises.

“My fear is that next time we have a major leak in the roof or there is real danger to our customers from falling masonry from other empty mill buildings which have become little more than pigeon lofts, then this unique facility, with beautifully engineered machines producing the finest woven fabrics, will be lost forever.”

Robin shares his father’s passion for the history and heritage of weaving, Andrew started his career as a tweed designer at Wilson & Glennie in his native Hawick in 1941.

“It was Andrew who had the idea of a heritage centre which would serve as an educational resource for schoolchildren and textile students, but would also be a huge cultural draw, bringing tourists to Selkirk and hopefully re-awakening a commercial interest in weaving,” explained Robin.

“My father had talks with local councillors, a textile consultant and the local enterprise company, but they never got beyond the discussion stage.

“Since he died, in 2009, I have floated the idea with a few people and met with planning officials from Scottish Borders Council to see if anything can be done with the nearby High Mill which is in a shocking and dangerous state of repair.

“Unfortunately, it seems no enforcement action can be taken because the ownership of the building is unknown.

“I’m continuing to press for action, but feel it should be part of a more ambitious proposal to tidy up the area and create the heritage centre here in Forest Mill.”

Robin Elliot said he was prepared to dispose of the building at a knockdown price to fulfil the family ambition.

He told us: “We are talking about acquiring, for the price of the average two-bedroomed house, a two-storey building which can easily be repaired and converted with the machines already in place on the ground floor for craftspeople to operate and the shop/showroom above capable of becoming a resource centre and cafe. The possibilities are endless.”

In an attempt to garner interest, Mr Elliot says he would be happy to discuss the concept with any interested party.

“This is not just about sentimentality for an industry in decline, but more of a commercial opportunity which could, in the right hands, spawn a renaissance in weaving”, he said.

Mr Elliot’s phone number is 01750 20412.