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Home Made: How UK and Ireland finishers are adding value to fabrics

From soft-drape worsteds to technical stain-resistant fabrics, the UK has a strong pedigree in value-added textile finishing.

Finishing at W.T. Johnson

Finishing at WT Johnson

Described as a mixture of artistry and science, textile finishing is the final process needed to bring a cloth to life. At its most basic, it involves washing the fabric to remove impurities such oil from the spinning and weaving processes, so the material is stable and ready for garment making (see box, opposite). Finishing also gives the cloth character - for example, by creating a soft drape or adding antimicrobial agents that kill bacteria that can cause odour.

There are only two specialist finishers in the UK: WT Johnson & Sons in Huddersfield and Schofield in Galashiels. Several mills, however, undertake finishing processes, among them Abraham Moon and Hainsworth, both in West Yorkshire.

UK finishers lead the way in producing a pressed, soft drape and woolly handle. Fabric finished by WT Johnson has graced the catwalks of Ralph Lauren, Paul Smith and Prada. The 105-year-old firm counts Bradford mill Joseph H Clissold, and fabric merchants Dormeuil and Scabal among its clients.

The technical team, headed by technical manager Alan Doley, who started work at WT Johnson 40 years ago, aged 16, is involved in the creative process with external designers from the beginning.

“We have to be clear what the weaver, retailer or brand wants to achieve,” explains Paul Johnson, managing director of the family business. “With our range of machines, we can create a significant difference to both the performance and aesthetics of bespoke fabric. For example, when Ralph Lauren wants cloth with an aged look, we finish it as naturally as possible. We scour and dry with hardly any pressing and apply steam to keep in the natural creases.”

WT Johnson uses the soft Pennine water at its 430,556 sq ft facility to wash away residual oil and adds soap to slowly help the tightly twisted yarns to swell and “burst”, so they open up to give the fabric a soft touch. The technical team are often asked to give

“We are dealing with very expensive fabrics with a beautiful handle for discerning markets where a suit can cost £2,000 to £3,000. So part of the trick is imparting the added performance, while still retaining the drape. I can’t be specific about the technique as this is part of our skillset,” says Johnson.

“The pricing of different performance or aesthetic effects depends on the complexity of the processes and the cost of any chemicals. In terms of manufacturing costs, finishing is less expensive than the yarn and weaving stages, often accounting for around 8% of the total cost. UK manufacturers need to demonstrate added value to consumers to justify higher price points, and offering new finishing effects is a way to do this. As innovation is such a focus, I believe the UK is really leading the way in finishing.”

WT Johnson produces an exclusive finish for Dormeuil cloth called Jade, which the Anglo-French luxury fabric merchant sells for £214 or €280 per metre (tailor price). The Super 160s merino wool suiting worsted incorporates New Zealand jade, which is applied in a suspension to the surface and baked on during tentering, the process that dries the fabric. 

“Finishing is very important because it is the last process and if it goes wrong, everything goes wrong,” says the seller’s president, Dominic Dormeuil. “However, you need the right fibres and yarn construction to make a beautiful cloth.”

For Joseph H Clissold senior designer Kenneth Forsyth the style of finish affects his fibre and yarn choice. A fine worsted yarn helps to create a clean, clear design with a polished finish, while a milled finish suits a soft, light woollen yarn.

“A milled finish makes the design look less defined because you are developing the yarn for longer,” Forsyth explains. “During milling, the cloth beats against itself in the machine, which breaks up the yarn to create softness. A medium mill could take two hours, whereas a heavy mill could last four.

“You can also do a blind mill, which mills the fabric until you can’t see the weave any more and it looks like a solid colour. This adds weight to the fabric and is perfect for soft warm overcoats. Over the past three years a milled finish has become more popular as retro-style cloths have grown in popularity.”

The team of 145 finishers at Scottish cashmere specialist Johnstons of Elgin processes 120,000 metres of cloth a year. They are proud of their natural methods, which include pulling spikey thistle-like teasel plants across the surface of wet cashmere to produce its signature rippled surface. Although the teasels have to be replaced with use, this costs the same as a mechanical process and is much gentler on the fabric. The cashmere can also be treated in a vapour deck, where felt-covered heated rollers apply pressure to the cloth to remove creases and surface fibres, leaving a polished finish.

The teasel gig at Johnstons of Elgin

The teasel gig at Johnstons of Elgin

“It’s crucial to see cloth in the machine, as we might see that the hairy surface fibres need more cropping or the weave structure isn’t right, so the design team are in the finishing department on a regular basis,” says apparel cloth design manager Louise Sullivan. “The finish is integral to the design, especially if we want to retain the 3D effect of the colour and weave.”

Somerset weaver Fox Brothers works with Roberts Dyers & Finishers in Keighley, West Yorkshire, on its West of England flannel. Using a 1920s method, the cloth is milled over wooden blocks in soft water to burst the fibres and give the flannel its soft texture and understated colouration. “We don’t tamper with the Fox Flannel recipe, which uses natural processing - literally just water and soap. Combined with a fine raw material it creates a beautiful fabric,” says Fox Brothers managing director Douglas Cordeaux.

Whereas the recent trend has been for lighter cloth, Fox Brothers is being asked by clients to make heavier fabric inspired by cloths from the 1940s. “It’s about playing around with milling to give an authentic, vintage finish, particularly popular among high-end Japanese garment manufacturers,” says Cordeaux.

International markets are not the only ones to value British finishing. Savile Row tailor Henry Poole prefers to buy UK-finished cloth: “We like to use fabrics finished in the UK by highly skilled people with a heritage in textiles,” says vice-chairman Philip Parker.

“The cloths our customers like have a dull, natural finish, not the high-gloss finish created by Italian mills. Consistency is crucial and we have to be able to count on fabric being finished to the same standard every time. It’s also important that we retain the skills base here in the UK. Markets like Japan, US and the Middle East know our reputation is very high, and they want cloth finished in the UK.”

More than 90% of the fabric WT Johnson finishes is made in the UK and sold to luxury markets worldwide. The 110-strong team produces up to 130,000 metres a week. Around 35% of the workforce has worked there for more than 35 years, although they are always training new people.

In addition to apprenticeships offered by companies such as WT Johnson, bodies such as Creative Skillset run NVQ courses and diplomas in manufacturing textile products and apparel/textile production.

Cordeaux believes the UK industry should take advantage of the vogue for making among young people: “Just like there are lots of craft brewers, I would love to see lots of young people with beards and tattoos working in finishing.”

Donald McKay, finishing manager at Harris Tweed Hebrides

Donald Mackay, finishing manager at Harris Tweed Hebrides

Harris Tweed Hebrides

Finishing manager Donald Mackay explains the stages needed to create Harris Tweed

“We begin with the scour, which involves rinsing the fabric in water at 40 degrees for 12 minutes to remove residual oil. We tend to wash 12 tweeds per scour, so we keep extreme colours apart and in rare cases we do a short pre-rinse in cold water to ensure the colours don’t run.  

Next is the milling stage when we apply heat, moisture and pressure to the cloth to squeeze out any excess water. To do this, the fabric is passed between dry rollers and we can adjust the pressure to give different amounts of milling. Typically, we mill the fabric at a speed of 150m a minute for 30 minutes and then reduce the speed to 70m to 80m a minute. We need there to be enough agitation to remove residues but not damage the fabric.

Then we fill a large bath with tepid water and four litres of acetic acid. The cloth is washed for four to five minutes in the solution to remove any remaining loose dye and fix the dyestuff to ensure the colour is clear. The fabric is then drained off and goes for its final rinse for 10 minutes. These wet processes take around 90 minutes.

Next, the fabric is squeezed to get rid of any excess moisture, after which it is de-twisted and laid out flat. The cloth is then put in a tenter, a machine designed to dry the fabric. We run the machine at 150 to 160 degrees, a medium heat as we don’t want to scorch it. After 15 minutes, the dry cloth is passed through a mangle at the front of the tenter, which ensures the fabric is at a level temperature. The tentering process takes around 45 minutes.  

After the scouring, milling and tentering, the fabric goes through the cropper to remove the hairy surface fibres. You can adjust the height of the blade so if you want to make the fabric woollier you raise the blade height. This process usually takes three to four minutes.

Finally the fabric goes through the blowing machine, which sets the cloth by adding steam and pressure. The cloth passes between two cylinders wrapped with cotton, which adds tension to the fabric without damaging it. Steam is blown through the cloth for 1.5 minutes, after which cold air is applied. Still in the cotton wrapper the cloth is transferred to an empty cylinder and steam is blown through. This final process takes 10 minutes, taking the whole process to around 2 hours 40 minutes. Now the Harris Tweed is finished.”

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