James Sugden, a champion for British textiles, passed away on December 28. He was 71.
Source: Murdo Macleod
Best known for his 25-year stint as CEO of Johnstons of Elgin, Sugden was a hugely popular and well-connected figure across the globe. His enthusiasm for the UK textiles and clothing sector was undimmed after almost 50 years in the industry. He remained fanatical in his desire to see traditional skills valued and nurtured for a new generation.
Interviewed by Scottish textile designer Hamish Carruthers for the Drapers 130th anniversary book in 2017, Sugden said: “One of the important things we need to do is to get really young people involved. So few school children know anything about how things were made… When retailers went offshore in the late 1990s, a lot of knowledge went with them.”
James Edward Sugden was born in September 1946 in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire, one of four sons of a mill-owning family. He was the only one to go into the textiles industry. After gaining a degree in economics from Downing College, Cambridge in 1968, he joined worsted spinner R Beanland & Co in Scissett, while taking an evening course in textiles at Huddersfield Technical College.
After working with worsted spinner M P Stonehouse in Wakefield and crafts yarns producer Readicut, he had a spell at worsted spinner W & J Whitehead in Laisterdyke, Bradford. In 1987 he moved to Moray in north-east Scotland to join Johnston’s of Elgin as sales director; within a year he was managing director. His enthusiasm, drive and good business sense was instrumental in expanding Johnstons’ business substantially. He oversaw a large increase in the workforce at the weaving facilities in Elgin, and subsequently developed the company’s knitwear factory in Hawick in the Scottish Borders. He personally relocated there in 2005.
Over his 25 years with Johnstons, Sugden led from the front. He travelled widely to meet suppliers of fine raw materials, especially of cashmere in China and Inner Mongolia, while at the same time making direct contact with major existing customers and gaining new ones too. When the Elgin plant was inundated by floods in 1997, he was immediately there in his wellingtons supervising the clean-up and deciding what new machinery was needed to keep everyone busy.
By the time he retired in 2013, Johnstons was the leading UK manufacturer of cashmere products, renowned for its fabric, knitwear and accessories. The company’s sales during his tenure soared from £5m to £50m-plus, with its products exported to over 30 countries. In 1994 Johnstons gained the Queen’s Award for Export.
In 2011 Sugden was awarded an OBE for his services to the textile Industry. A Liveryman of The Weavers Company since 2006, he became chairman of the company’s textile committee and worked tirelessly to get young graduate woven designers into UK mills. He later steered the introduction of an apprenticeship scheme to train more young weaving technicians.
A chairman of the Scottish Textiles Manufacturing Association, Sugden was without doubt a leading expert in textiles in the UK. He was a key figure in the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute (CCMI), which represents producers of superfine fibres globally. He was actively involved in the restoration of Dumfries House in Ayrshire, under the chairmanship of Prince Charles, which encouraged young people to learn new skills there. He was an early member of the Manchester-based Alliance Project, set up by Lord David Alliance to examine the potential for repatriating textile manufacturing to the UK.
Post-Johnstons, Sugden became a non-executive director of Brora Cashmere and was actively involved with the Weavers Company in awarding prizes to young students entering the textile industry. He assisted trade charity FTCT in contacting textile mills north of the border.
Modest and charming, urbane and multilingual, Sugden was unfailingly generous with his time and advice, had boundless energy and a great ability to get on with everybody from all walks of life. He never missed an opportunity to stress his Yorkshire roots, even though most of his career had been spent in Scotland.
James leaves his wife Linda, children Emily, John and Rosie, and four grandchildren. Rosie Sugden has her own cashmere brand, while John, after working with Scottish rainwear brand Mackintosh, acquired the tweed specialist Campbells of Beauly and carried on the family textile tradition.
In his talk with Hamish Carruthers for Drapers 130th book, Sugden explained why he had stayed in the industry so long: “It’s in my blood. 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. The future is bright because we still have people with bright ideas coming forward.”
A service of celebration for the life of James Sugden will take place at St Cuthbert’s Episcopal Church, Hawick on Thursday, 11 January at 11am.