A good yarn: Johnstons of Elgin

With a new store in Harrods, Johnstons of Elgin continues to produce the finest wool and cashmere more than 200 years after it was first founded

Style 2 Jan 2019

Johnstons of Elgin’s new collection is relaxed, modern and layered
The hero piece of the men’s and women’s range is the scarf
Johnstons of Elgin works with the finest cashmere and wool

Johnstons of Elgin has been making cloth and clothing in the Highlands since it was founded in 1797. It is the only firm of its kind in Scotland that is totally vertical – a clothing company that does the lot. You put raw material in (the cashmere and wool of a goat or sheep) and out comes a finished garment. At its manufacturing facility in Elgin, visitors can explore the dying and washing and weaving machines, eat in its café and browse its range of men’s and women’s wear and interior furnishings in two stores on site.

The interesting thing is that when visitors buy into the contemporary country style encapsulated by Johnstons of Elgin, they are replicating the behaviour of urbanites of 150 years ago. According to my guide, the tweed-and-knit look we associate with rural dressing was first made popular by aristocrats – including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert – who went up to the Highlands having made the acquaintance of the wealthy Scottish who visited London. The Scottish country retreat came with a wardrobe that reflected the spirit of the landscape and the protective functionality required by the weather.

Heritage is in the bones of this place. It is Scotland’s second-oldest family business, and as you wander from storage shed to dying facility and then watch the looms with their deafening chatter, it’s impossible not to feel the rich history around you. The archive room houses ledgers that go back centuries, and there are records of tweeds made specifically for Scottish estates to reflect the colours of their soil, flora and lochs.

The factory makes vicuña, lambswool, merino and cashmere

The firm started developing yarn from Chile’s rare vicuña camelids in 1849, before working with cashmere in 1851. Today the factory still makes vicuña yarn – which can be up to six times more expensive than cashmere – as well as lambswool, merino, and the cashmere, which comes from goats in Mongolia and Afghanistan. It also designs and develops all manner of patterns and jacquard designs as well as embroidery, and has a monogramming service. It produces knitted products as well as the woven fabric for tailoring. It is a mark of the centuries of expertise under these roofs that many famous international luxury brands make the pilgrimage here to create pieces that only these Scots can craft.

Although the label still makes classic tweed and knitwear items – including crew necks, cable knits and cardigans – the fact is, as Alan Scott (creative director of the firm) is the first to note, nobody really wants to dress like a Victorian. Scott came on board in 2016 and set about employingthe rare skills he found at the factory to create fabrics and garments for the 21st century. He says, ‘Johnstons of Elgin has incredible provenance, but it has always been an innovator and pioneer. There is a temptation to look to the past when you have such amazing history, but the secret of staying relevant is to use the past to create a new future’.

Though Johnstons of Elgin has been making cloth, clothing and accessories under its own label and for others since its very early days – there’s even an entry for an order from Burberry dated 1900 – it’s only in the last couple of years that it has seriously addressed the possibility of creating  a collection of its own. And under Scott’s direction, it has seen an enthusiastic response.

Basing the aesthetic around natural fabrics – and blends thereof – and making use of several country-influenced colours and patterns, Scott has created a relaxed, layered, modern look that incorporates outerwear and tailored pieces as well as knits, gloves and socks. For men, there is a Glen-check merino wool and cashmere jacket and a Ventile trench coat with detachable quilted cashmere velour gilet (as a collaboration with Private White VC of Manchester), and for women, coats, pea coats and a belted kimono, all in either cashmere, or merino wool and cashmere. A large section of the collection falls under the on-trend athleisure category – jogging pants and zip-up tops, hoodies and robes – and the hero piece for both genders is the scarf, which comes in various sizes, including a large, stole-like version for men and women that is dramatically elegant and allows for decorative styling of any outfit.

There are now four Johnstons of Elgin storesin the UK, and this season Harrods has opened a new men’s section dedicated to the Scottish label. The collection shows during London fashion week and is being bought increasingly by people who like not only the quality, but also the style – think of the all-day, casual versatility of Italian labels such as Loro Piana and Brunello Cucinelli. But there is a British edge here that sets it apart from its European counterparts.

This quality is present in the colour, patterns and cut, and in the styling combinations – see the mannish pieces worn by women (such as boyfriend jumpers) and the fitted sweaters worn by men. Next season there are super-lightweight cashmere pieces that can be layered for spring, while the unstructured tailoring is perfect for those who still like to wear a jacket, but don’t want to look like they are going for a job interview.

If you want to know how the past can influence the future wardrobe, while it breaks free from the shackles of a retro cartoonism, look no further than 170 miles north of Edinburgh.