On The Radar: Johnstons Of Elgin

Words by: Andrew Williams


It sounds rather odd to talk about recently discovering a company when it has been in business since 1797. But that was the case when these beautiful scarves caught my eye across a crowded room, as it were. They lead me to a chance encounter with a very pleasant man by the name of George McNeil, who is the Director of Retail for independent family firm Johnstons of Elgin.

I’ll admit that I was slightly embarrassed to confess to George that I hadn’t heard of the company before, but was fascinated by what I found out.

Founded by Alexander Johnston in Newmill (Scotland) in 1797, the company remains unique amongst British textile manufacturers in that it is the only mill in Britain to transform cashmere from raw fibre to the finished article. Even John Smedley, that other great British knitwear name, buys in its yarn from Italy. At their mill on the banks of the River Lossie in Elgin, Johnstons still produce all their woven accessories, homewares and apparel. Meanwhile, knitwear is crafted at their factory in Hawick. Other than the fact that the cashmere has to come from Mongolia you’d be hard pressed to get more ‘Made in Britain’ than that.

I pointed out to George that I’d recently visited the John Smedley factory and it seems that both companies keep in regular contact with one another, but then when you’re the last best examples of your art I suppose it pays to stick together. And the similarities in some respects are quite remarkable. To begin with, Johnstons does many of the process of manufacture by hand, including sewing the point of the V on a jumper.

One thing I have learnt recently is that knitwear manufacturers attribute great properties to the water in which their garments are washed, just prior to finishing. Smedley for example, attribute the softness of their cashmere to the natural spring water from their own spring. Johnstons of Elgin use soft local water from the river Teviot in Hawick, which judging by feel of their garments seems to do the trick.

As to the garments themselves George told me that their knitwear is fully fashioned, which means that each garment is knitted to shape to give the best fit. The ribbed trimmings, cuffs, collars, welts, pockets and straps are knitted on specialised machines, which create the essential tension needed to preserve the shape of the garments in wear.

As you might expect Johnsons manufacture for some prestigious brands, and predominantly work wholesale to niche stores world wide. However, you can buy from them direct on their website, and I got the impression that the company are looking to be build much more on their own name and reputation. So watch this space.

And remember, you probably didn’t hear about here first.