In its earliest days, Johnstons of Elgin, founded in 1797, cut its teeth making tweeds for the Scottish estates. These were designed to reflect the landscape of each family’s land, so as to function as camouflage. To this day, Johnstons makes these woollen tweeds. ‘It’s a bit like tartan, in that each estate has its own design,’ says Alan Scott, the firm’s creative director. ‘The colours used to depend on the particular geography of the land, so you’ll see different levels of, say, moss and green, so that you just disappear into the heather and bracken. Whereas one tweed might be green with a flash of purple, for example, another would be darker – a different set of colours for a place that has more moorland, as opposed to one that has forest or woodland. Each is tailored to the environment.’
While Johnstons still supplies the local landowners and gillies, its 21st-century stock in trade is altogether more metropolitan – making luxury knitwear and clothing for modern, largely urban, life. Though the archive in the Scottish borders is a source of constant inspiration for Scott. ‘We have all these bound books of old fabrics in a library here and they are amazing. For next winter, I’ve revisited some of the estate designs and enlarged and exploded them to make them contemporary.
Scott is big on contemporary. He fully understands that today the fabrics and clothes that people wear need to be versatile and comfortable. Luckily for him, Johnstons of Elgin is what they call a vertical mill – one of the last in the UK – where everything is done on site, from processing the raw Mongolian cashmere and fine wool from Australia, to weaving it into cloth or knitting it into garments. This means that Scott has a whole research and development department on his doorstep.
For this spring, Scott has used his resources to develop a collection that is absolutely suited to the modern notions of comfort, versatility and function. Most easily described as loungewear, Johnstons of Elgin has created T-shirts, sweatshirts, tracksuits and jogging pants from cashmere. ‘For summer, the key is the weight,’ explains Scott. ‘We create super-lightweight cashmere that is breathable and comfortable. Great to wear around the house, or out and about – it’s a chic, understated city look in cosmopolitan neutral colours.’
Another development has been what he describes as a ‘cashmere terry fleece’. This has been used to make sporty fleece-backed sweatshirts, a gilet and a bomber jacket, all reversible. The sports theme extends to cashmere zip-up tops, and pants, with track stripes, and two versatile cashmere jogging bottoms, one with straight legs that works as a pair of casual trousers and one with a grip cuff that looks more active.
As well as cashmere, Johnstons of Elgin also specialises in superfine merino wool. This is perfect for wearing next to your skin, as it has a cool feel, and it also possesses antimicrobial properties and doesn’t crease. ‘We use a 15-gauge superfine merino for polo-shirts, T-shirts and V-necks,’ explains Scott. It’s like the fabric that you find in super 120s crease-resistant wool travel suits but in knitted form. It has great performance.’ There are also lightweight dressy merino joggers.
Merino is also the choice for an unlined jacket in a double-face quality, meaning it has one colour on the outside and another for the interior – like sage green matched with pale camel, or silver grey paired with a darker shade of grey. This piece has a soft shoulder and is incredibly relaxed, with what Scott calls a ‘bouncy quality that moulds to your body and doesn’t crease’. It is a great garment for the house or for venturing out on a walk. As are an unlined double-face linen and wool shirt jacket that feels dry to the touch, a short unlined safari jacket in linen, and a cotton Ventile and wool Teflon-coated unlined coat that is reversible and has sealed seams to make it waterproof.
When you add to this the super-light cashmere and merino scarves that you can wear round your neck or use to stay warm you can see how this traditional business, owned in its long lifetime by just two families – really does have the modern consumer who needs comfort, luxury and convenience in mind.