Since the UK magazine Knitting only ran a glowing article about Rowan Scottish Tweed and the Carloway mill in February, perhaps it is still timely to follow up on the end of the Harris Tweed legal showdown.
As mentioned at the end of this post, the action launched by the Harris Tweed Authority (HTA) against Coats (owner of Rowan) and Harris Tweed Textiles (HTTL), the company supplying Rowan with the yarn presently known as Scottish Tweed, was settled. Rowan rebranded its Harris yarn as Scottish Tweed last year — thereby introducing the word “Tweed” into the yarn name itself — and retailers are still selling off the stock with the old labels. It hasn’t completely ended, though, as there is yet to be an assessment of legal costs.
The announcement of the settlement on the HTA website is rather brief: undertakings not to infringe HTA’s trademark rights, and not to use “Harris Tweed”, “Harris Yarn”, or the domain name “harris-tweed.co.uk” in association with yarn. (It’s a standard provision in most settlement agreements relating to intellectual property rights that a party will not infringe those rights in future, whether there was an admission or finding of past infringement or not.)
The report of HTA’s victory elsewhere by Alice Starmore is a little more sanguine, and takes the opportunity to riff a bit on the subject of creativity and hand knitwear design: the defendants “finally caved in to all demands” and the HTA “won” their case; the defendants will probably try to avoid paying the court-ordered legal costs; the defendants are infringers and criminals; the defendants have had the gall to rebrand their yarn as “Scottish” Tweed; she suggests that Rowan has lost its innovative edge, and cautions all would-be hand knitting designers not to bother trying, because someone will just rip you off in the end; and she turns a bit ghoulish when she describes an accident at Carloway mill. Oh, and she mocks Di Gilpin’s work. (I prefer ghoulishness in relating business or legal affairs, not incidents in which a man nearly died. As for Gilpin, I personally do prefer Starmore’s designs to Gilpin’s, but I wouldn’t wear either of them.)
To clarify, what HTA “won” in court was legal costs. And unlike Starmore, HTA didn’t call the defendants’ activities infringements; the HTA press release doesn’t say that an admission of infringement was involved, merely that an undertaking not to infringe was given. If Starmore is privy to the terms of settlement, perhaps she’d like to share more of them with us.
Based on Starmore’s reporting (the bullet points near the bottom of this page), it appears that the legal costs were granted because the defendants stood their ground and did not attempt to negotiate, causing HTA to continue the action with the attendant expense. I’m a little puzzled by this, because the yarn was in the process of being renamed “Scottish Tweed” before the action was finally settled; but who knows what (lack of) communication transpired.
More interesting, though, are Starmore’s thoughts on the industry in general.
Retreading old ground
A little more of Starmore’s past history comes out when she mentions that she was a creditor of Rowan when it went bankrupt in 1995. The implication in the following paragraphs of her epilogue is that after its acquisition by Coats, Rowan had become morally and creatively bankrupt, as well.
She asks what happened to Rowan’s “innovation.” I find myself wondering what she means. Does she mean a lack of innovation in design? Perhaps the designs published by Rowan ten years ago were a little more elaborate, but on the other hand, perhaps the evolution of Rowan design philosophy to minimalism (with intermittent Fassett and Mably plumage) is a response to demand from knitters for simpler designs.
Still, some of the designers in Rowan’s pattern books pre-1995 are the same as the designers in the books published after the Coats acquisition: Kaffe Fassett, Annabel Fox, Jean Moss, Kim Hargreaves, Sharon Peake, Erika Knight, Sarah Dallas, Sasha Kagan. Some of them have gone on to establish independent design portfolios or yarn lines in recent years. (And I have no idea if those designers did so as a result of a falling out with Coats-owned Rowan, or if they simply realized that they, too, could produce patterns and an eponymous range of yarns, with increased name recognition, just like Alice Starmore did. I hope that Starmore isn’t upset with them for stealing her idea of branching out on their own, too.)
Does she mean the gorilla-like armwarmers and other devices that appear to have been designed at the last minute before publication, and are intended to use only small quantities of mega-bulky yarn? If so, the problem is not simply Rowan lacking creativity; as part of the resurgence of knitting, a market has been built up for quick projects demanding few skills and less yarn. That may be the fault of the customers, or it may be the fault of the industry players who created that demand in the first place.
Does she mean a lack of innovation in yarns? While we’ve seen the regrettable loss of classic yarns since the Coats takeover (remember, one mill that supplied Rowan with some of those classic yarns closed down a while ago, so some discontinuations may not have been by Coats’s choice), we’ve seen the introduction of new yarns that clearly show that the company is willing to take risks (R2 comes to mind) and to introduce new concepts in hand knitting yarns (such as Calmer). They’ve even successfully created a market for luxury laceweight yarn–and they’ve been so successful, that their Kidsilk Haze has been dubbed “Cracksilk Haze” in blogland. Certainly, the objective is to make money for Coats, but means that they have chosen to achieve that end has resulted in more variety for the consumer (and for me, a cotton-blend yarn that I don’t mind knitting). And in the meantime, Rowan has apparently been trying to establish a yarn line to replace the old Donegal Lambswool Tweed and other DK and lighter yarns.
Starmore seems to admit that Rowan is having yarn manufactured in Scotland when she recounts in her epilogue that some American knitters are planning to visit an unnamed Lewis mill. (However, I’m not certain if her mock incredulity isn’t also directed at the use of the term “factory” in place of “mill.”) Prior to that, she also claims that the Rowan Harris yarn (which, note, she herself mislabels as “Harris Tweed yarn”) could not have been “entirely constructed” by HTTL on Lewis, but does not explain why. That missing detail reminds me that the description of her own yarn does not advise that her own products are produced entirely on Lewis (her yarn tags state “Great Britain”), so that jibe seems a little disingenuous.
And on the subject of the Rowan yarn, Starmore states that when she examined it she found it was “made from wool of bog-standard quality and of equally standard knopped construction”. I can’t speak of the relative qualities of Scottish Tweed yarn and Starmore’s Hebridean yarns, but I wonder if she could have possibly meant “standard knopped construction” as a criticism:
At left, Rowan Scottish Tweed DK in brilliant pink; center, Rowan Scottish Tweed 4 ply in midnight (overexposed to show as much colour as possible — overall, the colour reads as darkest blue-black); and right, Alice Starmore Hebridean 3 ply (worsted weight). To be fair, the Starmore yarn appears smoothest overall, because it is composed of three plies to the Scottish Tweed’s two plies. I haven’t got any samples of Hebridean 2 ply to compare. But I still see knops, such as that green one the upper right-hand corner.
The Hebridean 3 ply has approximately 100 metres per 50g skein at 5.50GBP; Scottish Tweed DK has 113 metres per 50g ball at 4.21GBP, not including VAT, meaning that for a generous sweater’s worth of yarn, the Scottish Tweed would likely be cheaper, even once shipping costs are added. (Virtual Yarns offers free shipping for orders over 12GBP.) Hebridean 3 ply is available in about three dozen shades, Scottish Tweed DK in 16 colours.
The Hebridean 2 ply has approximately 85 metres per 25g skein at 2.80GBP; Scottish Tweed 4 ply has 110 metres per 25g skein. Both are intended for use for stranded colourwork, but the Scottish Tweed seems to be closer in yarn weight to typical yarns for Fair Isle-type knitting, such as Jamieson’s Shetland Spindrift; according to the numbers, Starmore’s Hebridean 2 ply is thicker. But if we compare the cost per yardage, the Rowan Scottish Tweed is a bit cheaper than Hebridean 2 ply. Hebridean 2 ply is available in the same three dozen shades as the 3 ply, and Scottish Tweed 4 ply is available in 24 colours.
This comparison suggests that at present, Starmore’s main advantage (aside from her design catalogue) over the competing Rowan Scottish Tweed line is the number of available colours — and some of the colours of Scottish Tweed, in fact, are exceedingly similar to colours in the Hebridean line. (I would not say identical, since these yarns are spun at different mills, and as far as I know the wool is dyed by different people.)
And it seems to me that therein lies Starmore’s reason for reporting on HTA’s dispute with Rowan and HTTL: she wanted an excuse to air her own grievances against a competitor, because she must not have any other recourse. She has complained that they have attempted to copy her “Hebridean Yarn Concept” and her colours; what is missing in her complaint is a clear statement that in doing so, they had transgressed her rights (beyond copying one webpage containing terms and conditions). Given that she calls HTTL “infringers” and “criminals”, one might think that she wouldn’t shrink from making further allegations if she thought she could make them stick. But as it is, after reading her three-part tale plus epilogue, I came away with the impression that the worst crime committed by HTTL, in Starmore’s eyes, is that they decided to compete. Against her.
The end… or is it?
One passage in Starmore’s epilogue is almost cryptic:
I have never known of a genuinely creative person who is confined to a single field of expression. That is not the way the creative mind works: never has and never will. If original creative work is abused by those seeking a free ride, then the creators simply turn to some other medium. Those who support and collude in such abuse can only expect to be becalmed in the dull doldrums of plagiarism and ersatz design values.
Since the above statement was posted, there have been few additions to Starmore’s online shop: new photographs of an existing design, an adaptation of an old Starmore design in the new yarns, and adaptations of a couple of designs from Jade Starmore’s first book — but no new designs. In fact, it has been a while since any new designs were published. Thus, this statement was cause for concern among Starmore fans: was this her way of saying that she will not be designing any more knitwear?
I’ve heard of one person e-mailing Virtual Yarns to put that question squarely to Alice Starmore; I haven’t heard that any response has been provided. After decades in the field, if Starmore had chosen to effectively retire from designing hand knits and move on to some other medium, that would be an understandable decision; but to go out on such a sour note? Is she suggesting that her competitors should be blamed for driving her out of this industry? Or is she only taking a break, and leaving her diehard customers with a cliffhanger?