Sartorialee heads north of the border to Johnstons of Elgin, the only vertical mill left in Scotland, to talk dyes, weaves, spins and knits – and returns home with the perfect winter tie.

Words and images © Lee Osborne

As we drive through the main gates of Newmill in the dead of night, my eyes are inextricably drawn to three goats huddled together in the forecourt, under the spotlight of the moon. To the untrained eye these could easily be Highland goats. It’s Elgin, after all, nestled just inland from the Moray Firth, flanked one side by the whisky distilleries of Speyside and The Cairngorms on the other. But on closer inspection these cashmere goats are in sculpted form, presented as a gift to the mill in recognition of a long-term trading liaison with a Chinese client. montage1
Hair of the goat
They epitomise what your mind imagines a cashmere goat to be. Cashmere from Highland goats with horns. It’s a romantic notion. The truth is Highland goats could not possibly supply the amount of raw cashmere to meet Johnstons’ demand. Despite some promise a decade ago, when Johnstons trialled the idea of de-hairing the entire Scottish clip, it amounted to little more than a 1000kilos of fibre. The best cashmere in fact originates four thousand miles away in Mongolia where, unlike Elgin (with its cool summers and relatively mild winters due to its maritime influence), the weather is dry and arid in summer and many degrees below freezing in winter, the perfect climatic conditions for the goats to grow their two coats: the outer which is hard and wiry, and the inner which is soft and luxurious. The remoteness of the raw material only adds to the mystique. The Mill exudes tranquillity, and has stood proudly beside the River Lossie ever since Alexander Johnston founded the company way back in 1797 – due to its availability of a skilled workforce, close proximity to the sea and the Lossie itself whose water would not only help soften the cashmere, but power the mill. In 1920, the Harrison family took ownership from the Johnstons where they remain to this very day.

Pattern forming
To take a tour of Johnstons, is to witness first hand the ingenuity and dedication of the weavers that goes in to creating some of the finest cashmere known to man. The tour begins in the pattern room, itself, a living museum. Shelves crammed full of leather-bound pattern books document the historic rise of tweed, volumes that have withstood the test of time (including extensive flood damage back in 1997 – as many curled pages in the weighty tomes testify). It’s as much a reference point for today’s designers as it was back in the 1700s, a designer’s compendium, inspiration oozing from every page. There is no greater evidence of this than in the design studio where swathes of coloured threads hang suspended from the wall like psychedelic Rastafarian locks, vying for space with fabric samples, colour swatches and scribbled sketches that cross reference these fine annals. _HHE0177_1000

“There is no greater evidence of this than in the design studio where swathes of coloured threads hang suspended from the wall like psychedelic Rastafarian locks, vying for space with fabric samples, colour swatches and scribbled sketches that cross reference these fine annals.”

Teaze me ‘til I lose control
From here it’s on to inspect the cashmere in its raw state – at this stage it resembles anything but the finest fibre in existence, but it has travelled half way round the world from the outer reaches of Mongolia, China and Iran. You soon realize it is the extensive production process that makes it such a prized commodity – as you circumnavigate the mill, you see for yourself as the cashmere is dyed, blended, carded and spun. While Johnstons have some of the most sophisticated weaving machinery in the world, it is heartening to discover that the humble teazle, similar to those found on a Scottish thistle, provides the pièce de résistance in the finishing process. These prickly customers are lined up side-by-side in long lines on a mechanical drum, where they are sprayed with water (when wet the spikes of the head tease out) and comb the cashmere fibres to achieve the silky smooth finish we know and love. It is nature’s way of giving something back. Attention to detail, a subject very dear to Sartorialee’s heart, is evident throughout. Staff inspect their threads with a fine tooth comb, trusting their eye to detect discrepancies in patterns and weaves, scrupulously correcting by hand.

Power of Scotland
The word provenance is bandied about a fair bit at Johnstons, a company who remain stoically loyal to their origins as a family owned company, and rightly so. Every item they produce is made in Scotland and they proudly fly the flag for British manufacturing. The fruits of their labours feel like investment pieces, built to last, luxurious, effusing style, bridging every generation.

Sartorialee selects:

With winter almost upon us, this bottle green cashmere tie is a stylish alternative to a silk knit. With its characteristic lustre and luxurious feel it is the pinnacle of refined elegance.

The geeky bit:
Spun on site in Elgin from combed long-staple wool, it’s 100% EZ Worsted cashmere with a subtle mass stitch texture. Knitted on 12g (12 needles per inch) the finest gauge Johnstons have. Knit time is 45-minutes, spun 4 at a time, so fifteen minutes per tie. It weighs 55g, so sits perfectly snug against the torso. £50.00, IMG_2958._loIMG_2961_loIMG_2968_lo

What, wear, when?

Tie a ‘four in hand’ knot and team with a spread-collar chambray shirt and camel blazer, like the one outlined below. Dress it up with a silk foulard scarf: camel_JoE_low
For added pizazz, and to push your sartorial competence to its very extreme, tie a diagonal knot (or cashmere knot) as illustrated below: diagonal tie knotsartorialee_tickertape2

A View to a skill

It is refreshing when an established brand like Johnstons, who boast several long servants in their ranks, including half-centurion Charlie Fraser, see it as their responsibility to not only nurture the current generation, but to educate those of the future too.

_HHE0108_640 Research revealed a worrying skills shortage in the weaving sector, so in order to redress the balance the company are to open a school in Hawick, historically the epicentre of the Scottish cashmere industry. Set to open in November 2014, the initiative is supported by Scottish Enterprise and Skills Development Scotland.

Weaving a future
Ten places will initially be available with prospective applicants being interviewed by the Johnstons in-house team. Six places will be filled by Johnstons trainees with a further 4 positions available to other companies in the Borders town. “The most experienced technical teams will then teach the trainees everything they need to know’ says Jenny Stuart, of Johnstons. “We won’t expect people who apply to have any previous experience, just a keen interest and willingness to learn.” Students will spend nearly a full year in training and will be given the opportunity to specialise in categories such as body linking, collar linking, hand sewing and mending. This culminates in a Modern Apprenticeship in the appropriate skill, which will not only provide a solid grounding for a career in textiles but should ensure a new generation of Charlie Fraser’s to keep the artistry of weaving alive.

Address: Johnstons of Elgin, Newmill, Elgin IV30 4AF, Scotland 

LINKS:   #since1797

Next in the series….Johnstons of Elgin Bespoke jacket service