The road to the MYB Textiles factory, in Newmilns, Ayrshire, is lined with derelict buildings – former factories that once represented a thriving machine lace and madras cotton industry in this, the Irvine Valley.
By the early 20th century, at least 14 large mills were in operation here, employing thousands and bringing prosperity to the area. But today, only a few remain, including MYB Textiles, which is now the last lace producer of its kind in the world, exclusively weaving Scottish lace and madras sheers for upmarket companies and clients around the world on original Nottingham lace looms.
The company's diverse range of lace has been featured in the television show Boardwalk Empire, Hollywood films Sex And The City 2 (a lace-patterned wallpaper based on their bestselling design, a collaboration with Glasgow designers Timorous Beasties), Water For Elephants and, soon, in director Steven Spielberg's latest film, Lincoln.
It can also be found in government buildings (The White House included), at theatres (about half of the lace produced here is for stage backdrops) and concerts (the company made one for singer Pink's 2009-10 Funhouse tour) and on the catwalks (MYB has started work on a dress for Ralph Lauren).
But it all begins at the end of this long, desolate road, where the factory sits virtually unchanged from when it was founded in 1900 under the name Morton Young and Borland. Only the humble door confirms this is the correct place ("MYB" is etched on the front) but, inside, there's the audible whirr and click-clack of machines hard at work and the hypnotic hum of constant motion.
Diaphanous sheets of lace stretch across looms – some 90 years old – while spools and spools of fine thread feed the machines, some of them 12.2m wide. Overseeing them are employees, many of whom have worked here for decades, including husbands and wives, mothers and daughters; while, nearby, hundreds of pattern cards hang from the ceiling – a catalogue of more than 50,000 designs that date back decades (although the latest technology means new designs can be sent from a designer's computer straight down to the looms). In another room, a group of women sit on stools or on the floor hand-repairing pieces of lace, the lengths of which are stretched out before them in swathes or gathered at their feet.
There's something awe-inspiring about a working factory – especially one so labour intensive and traditional – producing beautiful pieces of fabric. For such a tiny corner of Ayrshire, MYB Textiles has a global reach, with big buying clients coming from Kazakhstan, Russia and China. At home, its client base includes designers and famous names, including songwriter-turned-designer Pearl Lowe, who customises MYB's lace for her friends.
The company also attends the world's major design shows (most recently it was one of 45 Scottish companies attending Clerkenwell Design Week in London) and in April it travelled to New York as part of Scotland Re:Designed, a collective designed to promote the fashion and textile industry abroad. Yet, as a company, the place it is least known is often back home in Scotland.
Margo Graham, the company's design director, has been working as a lace designer since she left school at 16. "We've got to tell people we're here," she explains, "because I sometimes feel like they know more about us in Moscow than they do in Glasgow – which is surprising."
Luckily, though, it's a niche business. "The Chinese can't copy us," explains Scott Davidson, the managing director. He too was 16 when he began working at the factory, before he and a few others bought MYB from the grandson of the founder 12 years ago.
"The Chinese can't buy the big looms downstairs, because there's none left. They can make similar-looking products on different machines but, normally, it's polyester – it's never the same; and the other product we make, the madras, we're the only people in the world manufacturing that, so it's a niche market."
It's only part of the company's secret to success. The other side of it is the fact MYB Textiles has focused on sales and constantly reinvested in the business over the years – when others didn't. Many of the original Nottingham lace looms have been adapted, with the help of Michael Litton, a local inventor who helped modify the first madras-producing Vamatex loom, making this the only mill in the world with access to the bespoke technology. This has enabled them to become the world leader in the field, as the only remaining producer of genuine Scottish madras.
MYB also survived the fickleness of trends, when cotton suffered after the invention of polyester in the 1960s. And, six years ago, Davidson acquired another mill – "because, to expand, you had to take on other mills to get their machinery" – which has allowed MYB to produce a gorgeous range of baby blankets.
"We've done a lot over the past 10 years," says Davidson, "and hopefully it's going to continue. We're thinking to the future even in these tough times.
"We're trying to make lace more modern and sexy for the younger audience. Traditionally, you think lace is for the grandmothers and that sort of thing but it's not any more."
As if to back this up, the company also collaborated on a range of lace knickers for company Strumpet & Pink. And all the coverage in films and on television helps, admits Davidson. "People see these beautiful fabrics and think, 'Where can I buy them?' But we've got to be as modern as possible – and we are now. We really think the future's bright."
The company is now taking on apprenticeships and remains one of the largest employers in the area, with 70 staff. As Graham says, "We try to keep everything as local as possible. Our customers know we're a Scottish company, but the fact our lace and madras is actually manufactured here gives it more value." n
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