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Exclusive: behind the scenes at Johnstons of Elgin


Set in the Highlands of Scotland, behind the gates and pristine garden of a 200-year-old grand country house, Johnstons of Elgin is bringing one of Scotland’s longest-running luxury industries to the forefront of contemporary fashion

Ruairidh Pritchard
Feature
Ruairidh Pritchard ,

It was in 1797, on banks of picturesque River Lossie, that Alexander Johnston founded Johnstons of Elgin woollen mill. Thanks to its position by the river’s soft water and also to the industrious workforce from the surrounding town, by the mid-19th century Johnstons of Elgin was creating some of the finest wool, tweed and cashmere products in the world.


The unique mix of history, community and passion is evident throughout Johnstons of Elgin, alongside the pride that is felt by its workers


Today Johnstons of Elgin is the second oldest family business in Scotland and it is one of the most prominent mills in the world, producing vast amounts of cashmere for a variety of international luxury labels as well as its own brand of clothing, accessories and homeware.

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During the blending process fibres are mixed in giant chambers to create the desired type and colour blends

During a tour of the mill, it becomes clear that the cashmere process hasn’t changed much in 200 years. But the turnover of wool and cashmere in the mill is astounding, with more than 10 tonnes of raw fibre delivered to its wool store every Tuesday. Bales of wool and cashmere, harvested primarily in rural China and Inner Mongolia, line the walls and sit on towering shelves alongside bales of Johnston of Elgin’s signature fibre, tobacco-coloured vicuña.

The finest natural fibre in existence, vicuña is almost impossibly soft and light to the touch. It is brushed from the vicuña animal, a relative of the llama, in the high plateaux of the central Andes. Johnstons of Elgin was the first to introduce it to Europe and has been prominent in securing the animal’s conservation, investing in programmes and working with Peruvian farmers to ensure the continued prosperity of the breed. This has allowed the mill to keep on creating luxuriously soft vicuña stoles and scarves.  

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Once spun into yarn, the colourful thread is stored in the mill’s yarn store, among hundreds of varieties of yarn

The first process for the raw fibre is dyeing. The mill has a colour library of more than 6,500 shades from natural dyes dating from the early 19th century, so the possibilities of creating colours are almost endless. Once dyed and dried, the fibres are fed into pipes leading to two enormous chambers. Here they are mixed to create the desired type and colour blends. The fibre is then combed on a series of giant rollers and spun into yarn. This is then transferred to the mill’s yarn store, which is filled with bobbins wrapped in all manner of vivid colours and hues.

It is not until the yarn is transferred to the mill’s warping and weaving looms that the textile begins to take shape, with checks and jacquard designs carefully monitored by the mill’s expert craftsmen and women who operate the looms by hand and foot pedal. Once woven, the material goes through an extensive finishing process. First it is washed with soft Scottish water; then it is scoured over rollers made of hundreds of teasels, a dried, prickly plant head, giving the cashmere its luxuriously soft finish.

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One of the mill’s many weaving machines, transforming thread into textile

Siobhan Falconer is one of the local craftswomen working on a purlin machine that creates the fringes left loose at the end of the warping and weaving process. She has been at Johnstons of Elgin for 11 years, working with her sister and their mother who have also been with the company for more than a decade.

Throughout the mill the sense of community is extremely strong. Some employees have been at the mill for more than 30 years, with Johnstons of Elgin being the largest employer in the area. Generations of Highland families work together, each mastering some of the centuries-old techniques that make the mill’s cashmere products among the best in the world.

Some of the most meticulous processes take place at the end of the manufacturing process. In a factory building just yards away from the 200-year-old Johnston family home, a small army of men and women sit at sewing machines, diligently inspecting the stitching on the edges of blankets and scarves. Gilly Christie is one of them. She’s a team leader and trainer, and having been at Johnstons for nine years she is a relative newcomer among some of Johnstons decades-long employees. When we meet she is inspecting blanket stitches along the edges of a batch of throws made for a luxury French brand.

Gilly explains that while a sewing machine can stitch the edges of the blankets, she and her colleagues expertly finish this by hand, with a needle and thread. They sew around the corners of the blankets and then look closely at all the edges and corners to ensure that the stitching is perfect. Once all the sewing is complete, the finished pieces don’t leave the factory until they’ve been further inspected by a studious team of quality controllers. Each of the team is armed with scissors, brushes and tweezers and they sit four to a table looking carefully at every piece before approving each scarf, blanket or throw for dispatch.

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The Johnstons of Elgin archive, housed in the former Johnston family home, contains thousands of swatches of previous designs

In the mill’s shop the finished products line rails and shelves; cashmere scarves, jumpers and accessories alongside opulent vicuña stoles, all having been painstakingly designed and produced, and soon to be sold on site. The former Johnston family home nearby now houses the mill’s vast archives, with tartans, tweeds and cashmere colour blends stored in a grand library of sample books, carefully preserved to inspire future designs.

The unique mix of history, community and passion is evident throughout Johnstons of Elgin, alongside the pride that is felt by its workers. For more than 220 years, this unassuming community in the Scottish Highlands has been playing an integral part in the luxury textiles industry. Take a close look and the high quality and value of the brand’s luxury cashmere, wool and vicuña items are apparent.

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The finished product; a luxuriously soft Johnstons of Elgin vicuña stole (£2,995, johnstonscashmere.com)

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