When a brand invites you to visit their factory, it’s a sign they’re proud of their craft and story. And one of the biggest perks of being a fashion writer and blogger, is having that access. Not just getting down to the nitty gritty of how things are made, but understanding the real history of the brand and the provenance of its products. Hence my delight at getting the chance to head up to the Johnstons Of Elgin factory and design studios near Aberdeen one September morning, where the 218-year-old Scottish brand produces woven fabrics and scarves for its own line as well as an impressive roster of luxury brands.
A 7am Heathrow call time was followed by a swift BA flight to Aberdeen, where we were met by the sprightly George, who ferried us along scenic roads of lush Scottish landscape. Despite being braced for freezing gales and gloomy skies, we arrived at the picturesque Johnstons of Elgin HQ in a blaze of autumn sunshine and brilliant cobalt sky.
While Johnstons of Elgin’s coveted cashmere knitwear is made in Hawick in the Scottish borders, the Elgin factory is reserved for wovens. From here it supplies Savile Row tailors with their suiting cloth and the world’s best luxury brands with shawls and scarves, including one famous for its monogrammed check ponchos and another for its equestrian motif blankets.
One of the best things about the trip was discovering that the original mill building from 1797 is still robustly intact. The brand was established in 1797 and has only ever been owned by two families; the Johnstons and current owners, the Harrisons. The factory buildings are as quaintly pretty as you’d hope, with a symbolic marble statue of three goats in front of the entrance, a gift from a Chinese cashmere supplier.
Another lovely thing about the Elgin factory is its place in the community. It offers tours to the public and also hosts a convivial café and factory shop. The first stop on our tour was to the vistors’ centre, a mini museum that gives you the lowdown on the history of the brand and the process of producing the raw fibre. Our visit took us on a tour of everything from the wool store, where bags of wool and cashmere fibre are kept until they’re needed, to the loose stock dye, the spinners, dryers and carding machines.
Raw fibre arrives from Inner Mongolia (cashmere) or Australia (Merino wool) where it’s then dyed in jumbo-sized pressure cookers. Then it’s on to a drying machine that works like a giant microwave. This is a slow process so as to protect the delicate fibres. When dry, they’ll have warm air blown through them to fluff them back up. Next comes the blending bin where more hot air is blown out, followed by ‘roving’ – the technique of spinning and twisting the fibres together into something more recognisable.
BELOW: the raw fibre; dying the wool; the blending bin; one of the mill buildings; roving; the finished yarn
It’s the spinning that makes the wool elastic and stretchy and I loved watching the wonderful old machinery that’s still in perfect working order. In this building you’re aware of how physical the work is. It’s noisy, hot and smelly with lots of machines chugging at once and most of their operators wearing ear protectors. Next we’re ushered to where the weaving magic happens. We’re shown how the warp and weft (different yarns going in opposite directions) are woven together. First the warp – the yarn is spun onto big spools then taken on the loom, individually threaded on to a needle – and then the weft. With hefty orders for outside clients (only 20% of the output is produced for Johnstons of Elgin’s own label) this has to be an efficient operation. There are tight deadlines to be met, especially at this time of year.
BELOW: The weaving plant where the warp and weft are woven together
We’re still only half way through the process though – it’s easy to underestimate how many processes go into making one scarf. The great lengths of woven fabric get dunked in huge washing machines to be drenched in lukewarm Scottish water and shampoo and then squeezed through an equally sizable wringer. Then it’s to yet another machine to buff the surface – a curious process called teaseling. If you’ve ever wondered how cashmere scarves are so soft, it’s not just down to the raw fibre that comes from the neck of the goat. Teaseling involves the spiky head of a teasel plant that’s placed in a revolving drum and combs the surface of these soon-to-be-finished scarves, giving them a super-soft finish. Who knew?
BELOW: Lengths of fabric being washed and wrung
Then finally, the scarf is ‘purled’, in which the ends are carefully fringed by hand, and every piece is checked for loose threads and re-darned if necessary. We also witness a hive of monogramming activity going on, including my initials on my very own scarf…
BELOW: ‘Purling’ – hand fringing the scarves; monogramming in action
Something I didn’t expect to find at Johnstons of Elgin; its designs are created right here on the same premises. So in a beautiful, minimalist studio, the floor vibrates to the manufacturing action that’s going on in the weaving plant next door. Isn’t that wonderful? In the studio, the team works way, way ahead of time. Fabric is the starting point in the chain for most fashion designers, so these fabric designers work even further ahead. In September, AW16/17 is already done and dusted, ready to show to designers who have just shown their SS16 collections so need to get cracking on the next one.
Despite its rich history, Johnstons of Elgin is keen not to be seen just as heritage. Since its new CEO Simon Cotton came on board in 2013 there has been a concerted push to contemporise its own products, balancing what it knows sells well with technical and creative innovation. Currently, an emerging trend is one that blurs the boundaries between knit, weave and print. Because great as the traditional stuff is (I may have splurged in the factory shop), the brand has to express its experimental credentials to attract the next generation of fashion designers to use its fabrics. And it’s certainly doing that. Its designs are as happy on the couture catwalks as in Savile Row. Let’s just say that the sample book of woven cashmere-merino mix tailoring swatches almost had to be prized from my over-eager hands.
Our tour culminates in the archive room, an impressive library of heaving shelves that hold storied ledgers of swatches and notes on every fabric produced. It’s truly awe-inspiring and a wonderful reminder of everything that Johnstons of Elgin stands for…
BELOW: Sample books of swatches from the archive
But it’s celebrating its future with a London flagship store opening next week on New Bond Street that marries its past influences and achievements with fresh modernity. Head down from 7th December to see the menswear and womenswear AW15 collections showcased alongside timeless classics and the home interiors line. (Don’t miss the magnifying lamp that lets you inspect your cashmere just as it’s done at the mill.) And should you ever find yourself passing through Elgin, book yourself a slot on the Johnstons of Elgin factory tour. You’ll never look at a fringed scarf in the same way again.
Johnstons of Elgin opens at 77 New Bond Street on 7th December 2015.
For more How It’s Made posts, check out my other workshop and factory visits:
Visiting the Lesage embroidery atelier with Chanel
For more on heritage brands and artisanal luxury, order my book, The New Garconne – How to be a Modern Gentlewoman (published September 2016)
WORDS AND IMAGES: Disneyrollergirl/Navaz Batliwalla
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Disneyrollergirl visited the Johnstons of Elgin factory as a guest of the brand.