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Hero of the Highlands

Johnstons of Elgin has been making textiles since 1810, so it’s no wonder it counts luxury labels among its clients.

The mention of Elgin might not immediately conjure up thoughts of luxury fashion, but the small town in the Scottish Highlands has an army of workers making some of the most sought-after cashmere products in the world.

Johnstons of Elgin makes garments for some of the best-known luxury brand houses, such as Burberry, Hermès and Chanel. Elgin may not be Milan, Paris or New York, but Johnstons staff are no less passionate about the importance of high-quality fashion product.

The original mill building, Newmill, has stood on the same site in Elgin since 1797. Originally built as an oatmeal and flax mill, it has been producing textiles since 1810. The mill, and the company, has only been in the hands of two families: original owners the Johnston family and current owners the Harrison family.

“It’s a family business where the family has absolutely no intention of selling the business,” explains Johnstons group managing director James Dracup. “What they [the owners] are most interested in is not taking money out of the business, in terms of a big dividend, but investing the money back into the business for its perpetuity and sustainability.”

Johnstons is one of only two vertical mills in the UK, which means it is  responsible for the complete manufacturing process from, as Dracup jokingly says, “goat to garment”. 

“I suppose the fact that it is a vertical mill is one of the unique points about Johnstons,” he adds.

Johnstons has another site located in Hawick, in the Scottish Borders, which makes all of the company’s fully fashioned knitwear products. The site at Elgin is primarily responsible for making all of the fabric, including that used in Johnstons’ new home furnishings line, as well as all of its cashmere scarves. Between 70% and 80% of Johnstons’ output is private label for other brands, the remaining 20% to 30% is own-brand cashmere products.

The raw material used by the mill to make garments is predominantly cashmere, which comes from China and Inner Mongolia, and lambswool and Merino, which come from Australia and New Zealand. The mill also uses Vicuna, which is sourced from Peru, and some camel hair from the two-humped Bactrian camel which lives in China and Mongolia.

Community focus

There are 795 staff employed by Johnstons across the two sites, 260 of whom work in Hawick, while the other 535 are based at Elgin. This figure includes those who work in head-office and back-office roles, as well as those who serve in the on-site shop and visitor centre. Those who work in the factories account for 83% of the total.

A lot of the actual process of making the product is done by machine, but this isn’t to say that those who work in the factories don’t play a vital role.

Dracup explains: “Over the past 10 years, especially since China joined the World Trade Organization, there has always been the temptation, or school of thought – should you go to an outsourcing partner?

“This company, though, with its peculiarly Highland roots, has a strong sense of paternal capitalism and has always wanted to serve the communities from which we operate, and that is really important to our culture here.  We have always had the ability and the wish to do things ourselves.”

Dracup believes there is a big difference between the two areas of Scotland in which Johnstons operates, and because of this, recruiting staff for the two factories is very different.

“The labour markets are completely different,” he explains. “Hawick is in the middle of a textile cluster, it is known as a mill town. The biggest challenge there is that the skills required to make fully fashioned knitwear are heavily hand-based. As the industry there has contracted, the firms have fed themselves on the available labour.

“The competition for labour in Hawick is fierce and the employers are starting to get together with local government and technical colleges to address the problem of bringing young people back into the industry.”

In Elgin, he says, there is a slightly different dynamic because it is a largely capital-intensive plant with two different sides to the business.

“There is the technical capital intensive side to the business and there are also the indirect manual skills, which you see in the finishing department – particularly in the dry finishing end –and the finishing logistics department, where we are actually sewing labels and tickets and tags onto things.”

Pride of place

Despite its relatively remote location, Dracup says that attracting people to work for Johnstons has not been too much of a problem. “We are seen as a community employer,” he says. “We spend an awful lot of time through things like our visitor centre and working with local schools to communicate that this isn’t a dark, satanic mill.

“It is through initiatives like this that we have been able to recruit people to us. However, unlike Hawick, this is not a textile area, which means we are forced, and have been forced for many years, to train people up and bring people from the community into the business.”

The fact that Johnstons manufactures for so many luxury brands is also, Dracup believes, a reason why so many people are keen to work there. “The brands we work with give the people who work here a sense of self-worth, pride and excitement because these are the brands that are forging the way in new markets across the world.” 

Manufacturing cashmere

1 Dyeing The raw cashmere fibre is dyed to achieve the appropriate colour.

2 Teasing Dyeing cashmere can leave the fibres in a matted state so to open them and prepare them for the next stage, they are teased out over spiked rollers.

3 Blending Blends can be made of different colours of the same fibre or different types of fibre to give a mix. After teasing, the wool is fed into a hopper and mixed.

4 From there it goes into a carding machine, which mixes and straightens all the fibres in preparation for spinning. These ribbons are known as rovings.

5 Rovings then have to be spun to convert them into yarn. Spinning is essentially twisting the fibres together to give them strength.

6 Before weaving can start, the warp has to be laid out, which is known as warping. The warp is the threads that run vertically from top to bottom of the cloth.

7 The warp is wound on to a circular beam and transferred to the loom for weaving, which is the introduction of weft threads (those that run horizontally).

8 Finishing When cloth has been woven, its appearance is rough and it has to be finished, which includes scouring it to remove the oil and grease.

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