Johnstons of Elgin – Mill Visit- Scotland

Johnstons of Elgin, Scotland:

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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.

Spools of thread, waiting to be connected to a knitting machine

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.

Pitt-stop on the 7 hour drive from Elgin to Howick. Not hard to see why knitwear has thrived here.

Pitt-stop on the 7 hour drive from Elgin to Hawick. Not hard to see why knitwear has thrived here.

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.

Raw cashmere thread

Raw cashmere thread

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.

Johnstons of Elgin sock knitting machines

Johnstons of Elgin sock knitting machines

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.

Purple thread, threaded onto needles and beginning to take shape

Purple thread, hooked onto needles of a knitting bed and beginning to take shape

Sock machine, automatically knitting socks. These machines close the toe, the sock comes off in one piece and then requires a strength tack to be used, followed by washing and pressing.

Finished cashmere socks. Surprisingly rough to the touch until a final treatment softens them.

Finished cashmere socks. Surprisingly rough to the touch until the washing process softens them.

Johnstons of Elgin

The Linking section, where parts are attached to each other by hand sewing. Johnstons do have machines which can knit an item from beginning to end, but the overwhelming majority of their products are hand linked. This gives greater quality control and is more in line with Johnstons “hand made” focus.

Light tubes, used to identify any imperfections or pulled threads.

Light Tubes, used to identify any imperfections, such as pulled threads.

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Hand Sewing. This will include the hand sewing of customers logos onto jumpers

The laundry room with enormous washing machines and dryers.

The laundry room with enormous washing machines and dryers. Unfortunately their scale isn’t obvious here.

Finishing and final quality control. Garments are carefully scanned, by eye, for any issues, including the wrong coloured hairs which might land on them during manufacturing. With millions of hairs floating around the factory, it's not uncommon for them to land on garments.

Finishing and final quality control. Garments are carefully scanned, by eye, for any issues, including stray coloured hairs which might land on them during manufacturing. With millions of hairs floating around the factory, it’s not uncommon for them to land on garments.

Andrew is an Australian born writer, covering the world's leading bespoke tailors and craftspeople in menswear, with a focus on authentic quality, over branding. He spends most of his days running his successful (god knows how) consulting company and travels frequently to Europe for work and writing. He's a passionate cyclist, former trainee professional golfer and lover of all things Cocker Spaniel. He's married to his best friend and significantly better half, Mehri.

2 Comments

  • Reply September 14, 2016

    Mirza Ahmad

    Always a pleasure to read your posts.

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