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A lifetime in textiles: James Sugden speaks to Hamish Carruthers

Hamish Carruthers and James Sugden

Following the sad news of the death of Scottish textile industry veteran James Sugden, non-executive director at Brora, we take a look back at an interview between him and design consultant Hamish Carruthers, which took place as part of Drapers’ 130th anniversary celebrations last year. 

Drapers travelled to the Scottish Borders to meet James Sugden and Hamish Carruthers, both champions of the UK’s textile industry. Sugden has been in the textile trade for more than 50 years, starting his career at his father’s factory before leading cashmere and woollen producer Johnstons of Elgin for 30 years. He was awarded an OBE for services to textiles in 2010 and is now a non-executive director at Scottish cashmere company Brora.

Carruthers is a leading design consultant and has worked at textile companies such as Claridge Mills and Dormeuil. He was the driving force behind Fashion 88 and Fashion 90 – marketing events that brought leading designers including Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors to the Scottish Borders to highlight Scottish textiles.

In this interview, they discuss the peaks and troughs of textile production, inspiring the next generation of talent, and how government can help the industry thrive and prosper.

Hamish Carruthers: James, we first met in a bar in Tokyo …

James Sugden: I remember! You were always rather outrageous and I like that. We used to go on sales trips promoting Scottish fabrics around the world and in those days – this was about 30 years ago – there were a lot more fabric mills in Scotland. We used to go as a group and there was real strength in what we did.

HC: My father was a wool appraiser and I’m from Hawick [in the Scottish Borders], which was all about textiles when I was growing up. I wanted to go into the Royal Air Force but my grandfather put me off that, so I went to what was then the Scottish College of Textiles, in Galashiels. There, I realised that textiles was what I wanted to be involved with. How did you get started in textiles?

JS: My father was a manufacturer. I was one of four brothers. The others weren’t that interested, but I always wanted to go into the mill. I was allowed to work there on Saturday or in the school holidays, and I just thought it was fascinating seeing how things were made. Sadly, my father died and the mill was sold, and I went to university. In those days there was a proper technical course, which was heavily wool orientated. I remember we had one professor who taught fibre technology, which was a year-long course. He talked about nothing but wool, and, right at the end of the course, said now I just need to mention polyester and nylon, as if they were an afterthought! I started to work with a mill and worked with them for 10 or 12 years before I came to Scotland.

We’ve both watched the industry go through some difficult times, but I think what we have left is a viable core

James Sugden

HC: Johnstons of Elgin was a traditional mill when you got there, and then became something that was truly international. Tell me about your time there.

James Sugden

Photographer: Murdo Macleod

James Sugden

JS: I came to Johnstons when it was a small weaving mill, turning out fairly ordinary jacketing fabrics and finding it difficult to compete. I realised the importance of getting young people and designers in – we didn’t even have a designer at one point. I spent 30 years as managing director there and that’s the amount of time it took [to change the business].

Every year we took another step forward. I remember getting a visit from Hermès, who were going round the mills to see if we had the critical mass they wanted. They were concerned because everyone else was going offshore and they didn’t want to put too many eggs in the basket of UK production. They said Mr Hermès was just – that was the word used, ‘just’ – satisfied there was enough capacity and skills to stay but it was a very fine line. They were considering whether to move offshore where they could get a better price and, let’s be fair, there are some quality producers in China.

HC: There are some very good ones! I realised early on in my career that design is one thing, but if you want to have control of what you do, you must go out and sell the product – you must know how good it is and be able to get that over to other people. I was over in America all the time when the likes of Donna Karan and Calvin Klein were coming through. A lot of Scottish mills were going out to America once a year and I was going six times, finding out where people were, phoning them, getting to know the receptionists so I could get through to people. Often, when people see a really great fabric, they think it must be from Italy and that’s simply not the case.

JS: There are still many advantages to buying [textiles] in the UK or in Scotland. It’s much closer to the market, so on the whole the industry can respond quicker. We’ve invested in better equipment so we can cope with shorter runs, and we should be able to make sampling easier. There were two seasons when you and I first started; now there’s a season practically every two months. You’ve got to come up with newness, and to do that you have to have very agile factories.

I think that’s a big change from when Mr Hermès came to check us out; the industry has got better. It’s not a question of philanthropy but of good business sense if some of your production can be done in the UK.

HC: It would be fantastic if the government got behind the industry and said it was going to put money in and invest, allowing a younger generation to come through, and have even more made here.

JS: I’m pushing very hard for the Scottish government to take this industry seriously. We’re competing with the Italian industry, which is bigger and stronger, and gets help with things like tax breaks. I haven’t given up; I’m pushing hard. I think we both get frustrated sometimes that textiles isn’t on the radar.

HC: I want to create an archive where people can see what Scotland has given to the fashion industry. There are many things we’ve done that are vastly important and I want to give people somewhere to show everything we’ve achieved. There’s a great opportunity to celebrate what we have given the industry.

It would be fantastic if the government got behind the industry and said it was going to put money in and invest

Hamish Carruthers

JS: I think we’re thriving but it’s in spite of government instead of because of it. We’re managing well without the help but, if we had the help, we could employ a lot more people.

HC: You’ve done a huge amount of fighting for training so a new generation can come into the textile industry, and have encouraged young talent.

JS: I’ve always felt it was wrong not to have some manufacturing in this country. We’ve both watched the industry go through some difficult times, but I think what we have left is a viable core. Having spent most of my life worrying about how to develop business, my concern now is actually whether we have the tools to deliver the increase in quantity that we are now seeing coming back to the UK. You and I know from bitter experience that, unless we bring young people into the industry now, it will be much harder further down the line. Our passion – I think it’s something we share – is trying to make sure there are young people in jobs so we can see a future.

HC: All of the opportunities the textile industry has given me have taught me about different cultures and different ways of doing things. I remember when I was working in London at one of the biggest wool merchants in the world, I saw all the politicians of the day coming in and ordering the best possible fabrics for their suits, as long as they were black, blue or grey. I wanted to take everything I’d learnt and bring it back to Scotland. You and I have had knowledge and experience that kids now aren’t getting. Educators have to realise they have to give their students enough knowledge about how something is made. To say they don’t need to understand that is doing them a disservice.

Hamish Carruthers and James Sugden

Hamish Carruthers and James Sugden

JS: One of the important things we need to do is get really young people involved. So few school children know anything about how things are made. It’s a bit like asking a kid: ‘Where does milk come from?’ And they say it comes from a supermarket. No, it comes from a cow and the cow is on the farm, and this is how the farm works. When retailers went offshore in the late 1990s, a lot of knowledge went with them.

HC: I can honestly say I’ve had the best career that anyone could have had. I’ve been around the world, I’ve met so many people. What has kept you in the textile industry for so long?

JS: It’s in my blood, I think. I came from a family where we were always talking about the next orders or the new machines or the latest designs. It’s an interesting life. Yes, there are problems to solve but it’s addictive. You have the knowledge and the enthusiasm, and often I’m working with young people, which keeps me sharp.

HC: It’s a fact that the textile industry has always gone in peaks and troughs, and you have to be able to read what’s coming next. It’s up to the next generation to find a way to cope with how fashion has changed and there will be a way for them to produce what people want. The government has to say, ‘Manufacturing is important and we will help.’ Then others will follow and invest. Where do you see the opportunities?

JS: We are a niche, but no one has ever defined how big a niche has to be. I’m reasonably optimistic that the industry can emerge stronger if we keep the education going. The future is bright because we still have people with bright ideas coming forward and the manufacturing chain is relatively stable.



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