Bernat Klein and Colourcraft

by Alice Rawsthorn

Leafing through an imported copy of French Elle in his office in Galashiels, a small town within the Scottish Borders, Bernat Klein spotted something familiar—some of the tweeds woven in his textile mill in Chanel’s spring 1963 haute couture collection.

Gabrielle Chanel was drawn to those tweeds because of the vibrant colors for which Klein’s company, Colourcraft, was renowned. Unbeknownst to him she had ordered them in sumptuous shades of orange, green, and cream from his Parisian distributor. Chanel’s patronage encouraged Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, and other Parisian couturiers to do the same, transforming the fortunes not only of Colourcraft, but its neighboring mills too.

Klein was an unlikely savior of Scotland’s deeply traditional textile industry, not least as, unlike most other local mill owners, he was not Scottish. Born in Serbia in 1922, Klein was educated in what is now the Czech Republic and in Israel, at the Bezalel School of Art and Crafts in Jerusalem, where some of his teachers in the textile department were German émigrés who had previously taught at the Bauhaus. By the time he left the school in 1944, his parents had been sent to Auschwitz, where his mother died. Klein joined the Allied war effort as a translator for the British Ministry of Information in Jerusalem and Cairo, before sailing for Britain in 1945 to study textile design at the University of Leeds in Yorkshire. Unable to return to Serbia, which had become part of Yugoslavia on the other side of the Iron Curtain, Klein stayed in Britain after graduating in 1948, working as a women’s wear designer in northern England and then in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, until his employer moved its design studio to Galashiels.

Klein set up home there with his new wife, Margaret Soper, a fellow student at Leeds whom he had met at a university ball. She encouraged him to begin his own business, and in 1952, armed with a loan of five hundred pounds from a friend, he rented a dilapidated Galashiels weaving shed with four looms. Soper opened a boutique in Edinburgh to sell the rugs, scarves, and ties they planned to make there. Their prospects were far from bright, as the local textile industry appeared to be an inexorable decline. But after a shaky start, Colourcraft found a sales agent in London who successfully sold its scarves to department stores. Soon, it had enough orders to buy new mills and to start making fabrics for women’s and men’s clothing.

Colourcraft was noted not only for its sophisticated use of color (often inspired by the work of Klein’s favorite artists, many of whom, like Paul Klee and Georges Seurat, were influential color theorists) but also for its technical virtuosity. Klein constantly experimented with creating new types of fabrics, and with making them lighter and glossier by developing innovative finishes and textures. These qualities had convinced Chanel to use Colourcraft’s tweeds, and prompted her rivals to follow suit. Other Galashiels mills upped their game, and the once-ailing Borders textile industry became buoyant again.

Klein continued to innovate, introducing new products, like knitting and sewing kits designed by Soper. He also published a book, Eye for Colour in 1965. But the following year Colourcraft’s shareholders insisted on appointing a business manager to run the company alongside him, and Klein resigned. He commissioned Peter Womersley, a local architect who had designed a modernist house for Klein, Soper, and their three children with magnificent views across the surrounding copper beech trees to the Eildon Hills, to build a studio for him in the same brutalist style.

He and Soper lived and worked there until their deaths in 2014 and 2008, respectively. By then, Klein had long been unofficially accepted as an honorary Scot. His archive had become part of the collection of the National Museum of Scotland and, after he died, The Scotsman newspaper hailed the Serbian émigré to Galashiels as having “transformed the Scottish textile industry.”

Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life published by Hamish Hamilton.