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How a 'crazy idea' helped save Borders textiles jobs

Diane Ness little suspected when her job disappeared in an insurance sector merger 13 years ago that she would create a business dedicated to preserving jobs in the textiles industry.

With her husband Andrew, Mrs Ness has ploughed some £70,000 of personal capital into creating Dunmore Scotland, which designs and manufactures fashion handbags and accessories, and is already selling in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, France, Belgium and its biggest market, Germany. What makes it different is its overriding philosophy to support and encourage key skills in Scotland, including the Borders where the couple live.

"I had been interested in property over the years, renovating Victorian houses and building some new houses," Mrs Ness says. "I enjoyed a good career in the property business and thoroughly enjoyed working with everyone from architects and builders to the interior designers and the new homebuyers. However the world was changing and things were slowing down."

She recalls: "I was reading the newspapers and I kept seeing that mills were closing, and saying to my husband this is dreadful, all those people losing their jobs, someone working there for 30 years. He said, what are you going to do about it? I knew nothing about the manufacture of wool or textiles but I thought 'I like bags'. I did some research for about 18 months and I approached Business Gateway."

Next the embryonic entrepreneur from West Linton got to know the Scottish Borders Exporters Association. "I just listened, I didn't know what I was doing, I had to pull in as much information as possible." Heriot Watt University's textiles college in the Borders proved to be "unbelievably supportive", its business development manager Jim McVeigh still taking an active interest.

"I doodle drawings and take them to people," Mrs Ness says modestly. "Sometimes I have patterns made up. For a simple thing like finding a pattern cutter I thought I was going to have to go to London - but I found somebody in Troon. Heriot Watt made up samples for me, I got a small grant, but had to pay for all the fabrics."

Dunmore Scotland began with "a crazy idea - tote bags with a Hieland coo or a Greyfriars Bobby" and then found people to make them. "I use one man to five-man businesses to manufacture my stuff. I don't employ anybody except for consulting, accounting, PR and social media." The latter, she says, is of crucial importance - while admitting to being entirely unsavvy about it.

From canvas and wool, Dunmore has moved into leather, at first sourcing from Spain and Italy. But now it has teamed up with "a wonderful tannery" in the West of Scotland, part of Scottish Leather Group, for thinner leathers. Mrs Ness says: "We are supporting the textiles industry and the manufacturing process, because when mills close there is nobody to take people on and it is very difficult to replace that."

The mission to sell began with trade fairs but soon moved up to retail 'country shows', which can cost £2000 a stand. Depending on the venue, Dunmore will show its £70 to £130 heritage range (Harris tweed and House of Edgar tartan from Perthshire), its lower-priced leather bags, or its prestige range at £275 up to £835.

Last month's Edinburgh International Fashion Festival saw the launch of the company's first celebrity-endorsed range, the 'Linton Collection' (from £325) created with Edinburgh-born film actress Louise Linton, now based in Los Angeles. The founder says: "We have been delighted with the response to our products at selected trade and country shows and from the international online orders. It is this that has given us the confidence to introduce a more contemporary design and invite Louise Linton to become our first brand ambassador."

The initiative includes the creation of The Dunmore Set, a group of "aspiring young Scots who are based in LA", who will regularly post photographs and updates on the Dunmore website and on social media channels. The intention is to "expose the brand to an even wider, relevant, audience".

Mrs Ness has never asked for an overdraft and wants to keep it that way. "I feel I have more control, it is a rolling thing at the moment, I don't think we would take our own unit or employ people.

"Ideally we want to be an e-commerce business, doing all the business from my desk - though you learn a lot at these shows. feel we are growing and I feel it is getting better. It is all about getting your name out there.

"I have always worked and would not have been content to sit back in early retirement. Dunmore Scotland represents a huge personal investment and while it has to be viewed in the long-term, the signs are good."

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