I always go to great lengths to ensure our products are made from the best possible materials available to us, by the best possible craftspeople around. This year we’ve been expanding our offer to include homeware and accessories and our first new addition comes in the form of cashmere.
Cashmere is a material which immediately invokes the feeling of luxury. It’s special, refined and utterly beautiful in every way. Yes it needs to be treated with care and, like all good things, if it is it’ll last a lifetime.
Having decided to bring knitwear to the shop this Autumn I set about finding the perfect scarf/hat combination and came across Johnstons of Elgin. They’re a company who I’ve know about for years, the type of maker synonymous with their wares, so I took a look through their vast collection and found the perfect pieces.
In my days on the shop floor I used to love talking to customers about the background of products. Online it can be a little more difficult to convey a story, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you a little more about the wonderful history behind the pieces I chose. They’re truly special and although they stand proud on their own, much like a good painting, they’re even better with a little context.
Alexander Johnston established The Elgin Mill on the banks of the River Lossie over two centuries ago, founding a legacy of fine craft and exquisite fabric. (For those of you familiar with Scotland that’s directly above the Cairngorms or just East along the coast from Inverness) The river was originally required to power the mill and also proved a great position for the mill on account of the abundance of workers living along its banks.
Johnstons of Elgin quickly became leaders in the wool industry and began producing Estate Tweed, something which was popularised by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In fact they hold a Royal Warrant of Appointment for manufacture of the tweed, awarded by H.R.H. The Duke of Rothesay. (that’s Charles, he uses that title in Scotland)
In the 1850s James Johnston fist brought cashmere fibres back from London to the factory in Elgin. The railways had just expanded allowing travel from the capital so trade became much easier and much more efficient. In 1851 Johnstons even exhibited in The Great Exhibition in London and were awarded a medal for “Superb Vicuna Shawls”.
In the two centuries following its establishment in 1797, Johnstons of Elgin has been owned by just two families – the Johnstons and the Harrisons. It was in the 1900s that the company was taken over by the Harrisons. Two world wars, a fire and a flood later they decided to focus solely on fashion garments and opened a second factory in Hawick. Over the years and in line with their success, Johnstons of Elgin has become a hugely important entity in the communities of Elgin and Hawick. Many of their employees have worked for them in either or both mills for their entire lives.
It is one of the last few vertical mills in the UK still carrying out all the processes from raw cashmere and fine woollen fibres right through to the finished product. To ensure the preservation of traditional craft they do their utmost to ensure the conservation of these special and increasingly rare skills. Now, alongside the mills, they operate a training centre which offers apprenticeships to people of all ages in the local community.
Cashmere is one of the finest, most luxurious natural fibres in the world. It is renowned for its extreme softness, warmth and lustrous quality. The finest, lofty fibres are taken from the underbelly of goats.
It is the dramatic fluctuation in temperature throughout the year, rising to above 40°C in summer and dropping to below -40°C in winter, that helps the goats to grow their beautifully downy under-fleece.
The natural crimp of cashmere fibres helps them to interlock during manufacturing processes and allow the fibres to be spun into very fine, lightweight fabrics.
After processing, cashmere yarn retains its loftiness. Its extreme warmth, yet delicate softness against the skin, makes cashmere the perfect fibre for Johnstons of Elgin's most luxurious garments.
The cashmere we use is blended from fibres carefully selected from Mongolia, China and Afghanistan. We combine the different qualities of these fibres in a way which optimises the performance of our fabrics and allows us to provide the best combination of durability and hand feel on any given product.
Most of the cashmere we use is gathered from goats which have been herded in the traditional ways which have been used for hundreds of years. This unique lifestyle means that the goats live an almost wild existence and helps to preserve these fragile communities.
We use fibre from the equivalent of around one million goats each year and each herder will typically look after around 200 goats. Although working directly with herders and farmers is difficult we are working as a founder member of the Sustainable Fibre Alliance to develop through them, sustainability programmes. By working closely with herder families the SFA aims to continuously improve the situation for both goats and herder communities.
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