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A Life in Lace

First in our series looking at women working in factories in Scotland

With 32 years of experience working among Ayrshire lace and looms, what design director Margo Graham doesn’t know about a good shuttle and a half drop repeat would fit on the width of a postage stamp. Fact.

Cooried in where the thrum of a bygone industry once drifted across the Irvine Valley you’ll find MYB Textiles, a world leader in its field. Among the surrounding lanes of Newmilns’ desolate, broken-windowed mills, it is here where Margo has plied the lace trade for half her working life.

It’s a perfect match. Both Margo and MYB are modest by definition, yet unassumingly ambitious of one another. Modest is as modest does, so when Margo tells you she has no qualms sharing scoops from her deep well of industry knowledge, you know it is sincere.

Born a farmer’s daughter in Irvine and having lived within a five minute drive of the mill all her life, Margo is in a third generation of women to have worked for the firm formerly known as Morton, Young and Borland. Her grandmother was a supervisor in the darning room and her mother held the esteemed role of designer, which Margo refers to as her great influence. 

“My mother was a lace designer too. I hadn’t known any other woman who did that role so I guess she was quite inspiring for me. She had made it, so I guess I wanted to make it too.”

Margo’s path, starting as an apprentice copier at the now defunct neighbouring mill Johnstone Shields, through to designer director at MYB has been somewhat akin to a cookie that’s crumbled the right way. Though in the early 1980s getting her foot near a loom was done in the face of lingering chauvinist defiance, as Margo recalls, “When I started, the industry was set in the dark ages. There was that attitude that management didn’t want to invest their time and money in training women in case you stopped working to have children.”

While many of her friends were filtering out of the local comprehensive to attend art college or university, Margo was entering a role historically filled by men a decade after the rise of Women’s Lib yet just a few years short of an amendment to the Equal Pay Act allowing women to be paid the same for work of equal value.

So followed a passion for threads per inch aligned with years of working through the industry’s ranks, as Margo recalls, “Girls never got past being a copier. You had to be quite talented to get on to be a draughtswoman. Then it was only draughtsmen.” It was a full seven years before Margo called herself a lace designer. “There was never a piece of paper to say that you were a bona fide designer.” Despite that unwritten certificate to say she’d had earned her lace stripes, Margo had made it in the face of good old-fashioned scepticism. “My first head designer kept saying ‘Och it’s not worth training you, you’ll only go off and get married and have kids, I’ll be wasting my time’.”

Fast forward to the present and Margo gives hint to what’s driven her to succeed on merit alone, as resolutely she says, “Even now I think you’ve got to prove yourself 110% as a woman.” Such has been her dedication and love of the job, she concedes, “When I did have my two daughters that was the hardest time for me. I admit I was back to work after only a few months following both births.”

Far from being the ruthless career woman out to prove the old guard wrong, Margo has built her ethos around banter and teamwork. She laughs loud recalling the day when a painter came to paint the factory floor but didn’t lift the bins and in describing a former colleague by the name Joey who claimed to be ‘the fastest shuttler in the valley.’ Each story is tinged with nostalgia for a past era. “Those were the days,” Margo recalls, “when up to thirty mills in the area would hire buses to take employees to the seaside. And the lace queen at the gala would be taken every year from all the mills. It was a community thing that’s since sadly died out.” 

Today MYB Textiles is a burgeoning, niche manufacturer producing exclusively Scottish lace and madras sheers for upmarket clients around the world on original Nottingham lace looms, some of which are 90 years old. In the grip of the recession like many manufacturing firms they were forced to make tough redundancy decisions and were down to working a 3-day week in their darkest hour. While the global market dipped, it was MYB’s Russian clients who helped keep the business steady. Now with American custom healthily back on the radar matched the exclusivity of bespoke looms manufacturing a product which the Chinese cannot copy, the future looks bright for the company.

Never veering from that natural reticence, it is the bread and butter clients Margo prefers to speak of rather than the glamorous, even presidential ones, i.e. the MYB lace design that can be found in the White House, or that which was displayed on the set of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar winning movie Lincoln, or Emmy Award winning TV drama, Broadwalk Empire. Interestingly, neither can this information be found on MYB’s website. Which perhaps goes to prove that when it comes to success in manufacturing, skill and modesty, just as in Margo’s case will get you quite far.

Cat Cochrane is a writer of all things journalistic.

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