Each year, in the late summer, thoughts at our house turned to all the rituals associated with going back to school. This included inspecting last year’s clothing, shoes and boots, gathering up pencils and erasers for the inevitable homework that would take place at the big kitchen table, and checking to see if the old lunch pails were still intact. Some articles would be passed down to younger members of the family, and some things would have to be purchased new.
Glenayr Kitten Logo
It was usually on a Saturday, the first or second week in September, that we made the annual trip to Lanark, to buy a couple of new sweaters at the Kitten factory outlet, and a new pair of shoes, maybe some new snow boots, at Gus Quinn’s store.
We drove down the Third Line, turned at Glen Tay, and headed up Highway 7, toward Lanark. The village of Lanark was a nice easy drive from our house – about twenty minutes or so. I suppose we could have done it in a bit less time, but Mother was never one to let Dad go over the speed limit; she was very strict about that and said that the laws were there for a reason. Dad would sometimes say that he ‘had’ to speed a bit, to burn the carbon off of his spark plugs, but Mother never fell for that, and she’d just give him ‘the look’, and he’d be back under the speed limit in no time.
After about ten minutes had passed, we’d be driving into Balderson. Sometimes Mother would stop and get some curd for us kids, and some old sharp cheese for Dad, but that was usually on the way back home from Lanark, so it wouldn’t spoil in the heat. We all knew the story of the giant cheese, made in Balderson, in 1893, for the World’s Fair in Chicago. The old timers said that it was six feet high, and weighed over 22,000 lbs. It was mostly butter and cheese that was produced there, when we were kids, and people would drive for miles around, even up from the States, because it was so good.
The former buildings of the Glenayr Kitten Mill, along the Clyde River, Lanark, Ontario
Another ten minutes or so and we’d be driving into Lanark. It was a pretty little village, built along the Clyde River. Mother said that it had been named for Lanarkshire in Scotland, and had been settled back in the 1820s, mostly by Scottish weavers and farmers.
Dad grew up on the family homestead, on the 11th concession of Drummond Township, not far from Lanark, and he often visited his Aunt Stacia, who owned a home in Lanark Village, right along the Clyde. Dad said that the Caldwell Woollen Mill, in Lanark, was a big employer back in the early days, but the building had been destroyed by fire. He said that there had been another huge fire in the late fifties, that destroyed many of the old original buildings in Lanark, and over 100 people had lost their homes.
Caldwell Woollen Mills, Lanark – Perth Remembered
After passing many of the homes and businesses along the main street, we finally arrived at 44 George Street, at the Glenayr Kitten Outlet. The business was started in 1944, by the Markle family, from Toronto, and Derek, son of the founder worked there as the superintendent of the mill. Some of the wool was already spun onto cones when it arrived from Scotland, and was knitted by circular machines. In 1951 they began to produce sweaters under the ‘Kitten’ label.
‘The Ottawa Citizen’, 1953
All kinds of sweaters were made at the Kitten mill, knitted with orlon, angora, mohair, lamb’s wool, or pure cashmere. There were a number of different styles– pullovers, cadet style, cardigans, ski styles, crew necks many different colours, zip front, turtleneck, six button, eight button cardigans, and alpine styles.
Glenayr Kitten also manufactured pantsuits, skirts, blazers, blouses and slacks.
Mary Graham, Lanark, Ontario
Buttercup yellow cardigan sweater from the Glenayr Kitten Mill, c.1970s
Label from the yellow sweater
Ad, 1978, ‘The Ottawa Citizen’
Blue sweater suit, Glenayr Kitten Mill, Lanark, Ontario
Workers at the Glenayr Kitten Mill stitch sweater pieces together
Terra-cotta orange short-sleeved sweater, Glenayr Kitten Mill, Lanark
The Kitten Mill stores were a popular tourist attraction, and visitors traveled by motor-coach from Ottawa, Kingston, and the U.S.
Kitten Mill ad, ‘The Ottawa Citizen’, 1980s
Violet, long-sleeve, collared sweater, Glenayr Kitten Mill, Lanark
Blazer and matching slacks, Glenayr Kitten Mill, 1990s
Peach popcorn knit, Glenayr Kitten Mill, Lanark
Rumours of Closure – 1992
‘The Ottawa Citizen” – 1992
Aqua, fine, combed-wool, long-sleeve Glenayr Kitten sweater, Lanark, Ontario
The Kitten Mill Remained Open
1993, ‘The Ottawa Citizen” – Kitten Mill Stays Open
Display at the Lanark Museum, Lanark, Ontario
Storyboard display highlighting some of the former staff of the Glenayr Kitten Mill,
Many items from the glory days of the Glenayr Kitten Mill, Lanark Museum
I think one of the things that attracted my frugal Mother to the Kitten outlet, was the fact that they sold ‘seconds’. They sold some sweaters that had small defects – without labels, and sold discontinued colours, ends-of-lines, and clearance items. The ‘seconds’ usually sold for between $4.50 and $12.00 at that time, so was very appealing when you were buying back-to-school clothing for a large family.
After a busy afternoon in Lanark, we’d head back home, with our new sweater ‘seconds’, ready for the new school year. Looking back, we were lucky to live such a short drive from the Kitten Mill, because the sweaters there really were lovely. Mother always found a way to add on the missing button, or to mend the seam that was beginning to unravel, so that you couldn’t tell that it was a second. Most of my Kitten sweaters lasted for years, because they were so well made, and were knitted with such high-quality yarns.
Sometimes during our visits to Lanark, I’d see huge, sleek, modern buses, pull up out front, and forty or fifty people got off the motor-coach, to shop at the outlets. I think many of them came all the way from Kingston or Ottawa. We didn’t realize it at the time, but people in the cities had already figured out that in our little corner of the world, folks had crafted their products with skills, passed down over generations, and they took great pride in what they manufactured.
Every spring, around the middle of March, we’d see city folks, suddenly appear around the Perth area, because they knew that the best tasting maple syrup came from Lanark County. It was also no secret that the finest tasting cheese in the world was made at the modest, little, factory in Balderson, and, if you wanted the highest quality sweaters, at a good price, and ‘soft as a kitten’, there was only one place to get them, and that was the village of Lanark.
(This story is dedicated to the people who worked at the Glenayr Kitten Mill. Many families had more than one member working at the Mill, and some worked for two or three decades, or more. Thank-you for producing the beautiful, cozy, sweaters, that kept us warm on those chilly days. You won’t be forgotten.
Thanks also to the Markle family, who provided work for the village of Lanark, and who kept their prices fair, so even those with a modest income could afford to purchase one of their high quality sweaters.)
A reunion for former staff at the Glenayr Kitten Mill, was held in 2017 at the Lanark Museum
This story is an excerpt from – ‘Lanark Sweaters – Soft as a Kitten’ – from the book, “Lanark County Kid: My Travels up and down the Third Line” ISBN: 978-0-9877026-16