As Yorkshire cashmere and wool mill Joshua Ellis celebrates its 250th anniversary, managing director Jayne Woodthorpe explains how the firm has reinvented itself to meet the demands of generations to come.
Jane Woodthorpe, managing director, Joshua Ellis
The town of Batley in West Yorkshire may not the first place you wouldd associate with luxury cashmere and rare Escorial wool, but Joshua Ellis is one of the fashion industry’s best-kept secrets, supplying its fabrics and accessories to some of the world’s leading designers and fashion houses.
Managing director Jayne Woodthorpe will not disclose the names of individual customers under the confidentiality agreements that cover many other under-the-radar mills in the heartland of Yorkshire’s textiles industry. She will confirm, however, that its main markets are Italy, the US, Japan – it opened a sales office in Tokyo in 2015 – and France for its luxury fabrics, and stock selection of jacketing and coating in 100% cashmere, as well as blends with camelhair, vicuna and Escorial wool.
The company also boasts a growing accessories business offering scarves and stoles under the Joshua Ellis label, as well as manufacturing private-label pieces for department stores and wholesale customers.
joshua ellis portrait
Joshua Ellis was established as a clothier by the Ellis family in 1767 and diversified into woollen textile manufacturing in the late 18th century. By 1930, the final member of the Ellis family, Peter, passed away and John Huxley became the managing director. His son, David Huxley, succeeded him as chairman, before the company was sold to Bradford-based textile group SIL Holdings Group in 2008 when David retired.
In 2003, the firm moved from its historic base of Batley Carr Mills to a more modern building, where it now resides on Grange Valley Road and houses around 55 employees. Woodthorpe, who became managing director in 2013, in addition to her existing role as finance director of SIL Holdings, explains more than £3m has been invested in machinery since 2008 to ensure the plant is fit for the future. It has installed six new Dornier looms and an additional jacquard loom in the last year alone, as well as investing in its IT systems.
Woodthorpe says turnover is now around £6m and that the business has become profitable under SIL ownership.
As the company buys its fibres in dollars and sells in sterling, current currency fluctuations are balancing out fairly well but Woodthorpe maintains that the company has to stay flexible to react to changing market conditions. Similarly, the movement to “see now, buy now”, and ongoing warm weather in many markets has led to a blurring of the traditional seasons and a need for more lighter-weight products, to which Joshua Ellis has been quick to adapt.
“Since Joshua Ellis was acquired by SIL Holdings, we have overseen quite a lot of modernisation including new looms and a full refurbishment of the finishing plant, as well as bolstering the management team, developing apprenticeships and offering further staff training,” says Woodthorpe.
“We’ve made a lot of investment while still retaining the skills and craftsmanship of our employees. People stay at the firm so long because it is a very skilled art, especially in the finishing department.”
The firm’s seven longest-serving employees boast a combined 250 years of experience and the company employs parents, children and siblings, which gives it a real family atmosphere. But one issue that hampers many UK textile firms is the challenge of retaining skills combined with an ageing workforce, so Joshua Ellis has focused on by attracting young people into the business as design graduates or apprenticeships.
“We need to make sure that these skills continue, so we try to train people ourselves and we’ve been quite successful over the last few years,” says Woodthorpe.
“We’ll build on these foundations further over the next few years and we’re looking to broaden the range of noble fibres we use to complement our predominantly cashmere business. We’re also focusing more on the provenance and traceability of our cashmere to track the fibre from the herders in Mongolia right along the production chain because consumers are increasingly interested in where their products come from.”
With the continued investment and quality of output, Joshua Ellis is set for the next 250 years of luxury textiles.