Johnstons of Elgin, Scotland:
Knitwear is complex. Far more complex than most people think, with several processes involved in taking fleece from its raw form through to a finished item. Nowhere is better known for knitwear than Scotland, which, for generations, has been famous for its knitwear. The Scottish climate plays a large part in this history, at least in the creation of the industry there, with bitterly cold winters necessitating layers of warm, insulating wool be worn for a good portion of the year. And within this small island nation, Johnstons of Elgin is the most famous (and largest) of all Scottish mills.
Johnstons actually have 2 mills, Elgin in the North, and Hawick (pronounced “hoik”) further south. We visited both mills and the images in this article are from Hawick.
Johnstons has been in operation for well over 200 years now and still, pleasingly, remains a family owned business and that business is very strong. Where other Scottish manufacturers have been going out of business for decades now, (one manufacturer actually announced its closure the week we were in Elgin) Johnstons is growing and increasing its capacity. An impressive achievement, given the 2 mills already employ over 1000 staff.
No doubt a part of their ability to grow to this size has been achieved through managing to make work the usually tricky balancing act of producing White Labels (garments, made for other brands, with no Johnstons label attached) as well as their own Johnstons of Elgin branded knitwear. One of the main differences you’ll spot between Johnston’s and Corgi, who I visited around the same time is that Corgi won’t make white labels in the strict sense of the word. They do make for other brands, including the high end of the luxury market, but the Corgi label sits alongside the clients’ label on every garment. There’s no right or wrong in this instance, just different business with different preferences and operating on very different scales (with Johnstons being multiples larger in staffing and mill size).
Johnstons of Elgin is one of those brands that you probably don’t know that you know, in that if you own any well made piece of knitwear, including those from the very high end of the luxury market, which has a “Made in Scotland” label, there is a better than fair chance that it was made by Johnstons.
The Elgin mill is completely vertical (raw fleece enters at one end and finished products exit at the other), whereas Hawick takes wool which has already been spun into thread from either the Elgin mill or sources it directly from Todd and Duncan or Hinchliffe’s, 2 of the UK’s leading spinners. Fleeces used range from lambswool, to cashmere and a small amount of Vicuna. The latter being particularly rare to see, as only a handful of mills in the world have even the first clue of how to mill Vicuna properly, due to its extreme fineness. In addition to Vicuna’s fineness, it’s also too expensive for a mill to get wrong, as it’s eye-wateringly expensive to purchase, even in its raw form directly from the source.
I thought it best to use the remaining images to explain the process for anyone who’s new to how knitwear is made. It should help to highlight some of the complexities and steps involved in making something as seemingly simple as a scarf.
Other than myself in some images, you’ll see Graham Wilson, a great guy and Sales Director for Johnstons Hawick Mill, who I first met at Pitti Uomo, by chance, and then a week or 2 later in Hawick to go through the mill.