Jan E. Lebet was a small knitwear company established on Yell during the 1960s. It had a distinctive business model, producing fashion garments on machines operated by men in a factory unit rather than employing outworkers. Although this experimental venture was supported financially and had a strong order book, it folded after only a few years.
In 1964 a small knitwear unit on the island of Yell was founded by a Dr W. H. Nisbet who, with his wife, ran a small company producing designer knitwear, Jan E. Lebet, in the textile town of Tillicoultry near Stirling. Nisbet, who had family links with the island, saw the unit as a means of stimulating male employment and stemming depopulation on Yell.
The company established a distinctive business model, producing fashion garments on machines in a small workshop rather than traditional knitwear made by outworkers. Supported by grants and loans, and with a ready-made contract owing to Jan E Lebet’s existing links with R & J Bryant, a knitwear manufacturer in Tillicoultry, it was anticipated that this venture would spearhead the islands’ entry into a new market. However, the company was always hampered by its remote location, the island’s inadequate infrastructure, a lack of indigenous skills, and the inability to scale up production.
A contract from the fashion house Cerruti to supply 20,000 garments annually could not be fulfilled. Even to meet a much lower production target of 150 garments a week required further investment in a second unit for finishing and packing, the purchase of two Italian Santagostino knitting machines, and the growth of the workforce to fifteen with the introduction of shift work.
Despite the commitment of Nisbet, support from Shetland’s development officer and a guaranteed market, the enterprise collapsed. Failure to make a repayment on loans and an outstanding debt to a yarn supplier tipped Jan E. Lebet into bankruptcy.
An experiment to modernise knitwear production in Shetland had failed. The project had been supported because some recognised that knitwear production on the islands needed to modernise and adapt to new market conditions and become less dependent on traditional knitwear styles and modes of production. But, despite this, the Shetland knitwear model, as exemplified by Shetland Fashions, still remained more suited to the island economy, its traditions and skills.
For a more detailed discussion about the knitwear industry in Shetland and its combination of hand and machine knitting, please read the project’s recently published article in Textile History – ‘Recognising the Co-dependence of Machine and Hand in the Scottish Knitwear Industry’.