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Johnstons Cashmere – A Scottish Tradition Based on a Chinese Goat

Johnstons of Elgin

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Cashmere is more than a fiber, it is the quintessence of luxury, and few people understand the business of luxury better than James Sugden, Managing Director of Johnstons Cashmere, now retired from the function.

If the name Johnstons doesn’t trigger images of haute couture sweater sets, perhaps labels such as Chanel, Hermes, Burberry and Saks Fifth Avenue will; considered by many as the “name behind the name” Johnstons began processing cashmere back in 1852.

In fact, the ever popular Brooks Brothers placed its first order with them more than a century ago.

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It is no coincidence that these icons of fashion put their trust in a company that built its reputation on manufacturing tweeds fit for a king.

Headquartered in Elgin, a rapidly growing town in the Scottish Highlands about 70 miles northwest of Aberdeen, Johnstons is the only Scottish mill to transform cashmere from fiber to garment.

Although some offices remain in the original building, (despite extensive damage caused by floods and fire) the business has grown to more than 500 including a state-of-the art dye house that was officially opened by Princess Anne in 2001.

Processing cashmere isn’t easy and processing it to perfection can be done by only a few.

“The cashmere industry is dramatically changing with more processing taking place in China than ever before,” remarks Sugden. “They have access to cheap labor, but … with less expertise. High quality cashmere garments are no different from other luxury items; you get what you pay for.”

The first step to creating a superior garment begins with purchasing the best cashmere available.

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Although Iran, Afghanistan, and Mongolia each sell cashmere on the international market, the best white/white cashmere comes from China. (Iranian cashmere is colored and tends to be slightly coarser and the Afghani clip has a shorter staple (length) with more scurf (dandruff).

But the challenge doesn’t end with determining the best country of origin.

Successfully doing business with the Chinese from half way around the globe requires an investment in relationships.

According to Sugden, “We only buy from a handful of distributors who we have worked with exclusively for 30 to 40 years. The Chinese don’t have the same business ethics we do and so it’s critical to know your supplier.”

Nearly everyone wants a cashmere sweater and many a man longs for a handsome sports jacket or full length winter coat; yet comparatively few people know that cashmere comes from the secondary hair follicle of a goat.

That same animal who has been unjustly accused of eating tin cans and scaling ten foot fences is one of the most prolific producers of luxury fiber.

However, when the cashmere is removed either by combing or shearing, the fine undercoat must be separated from the coarse, outer guard hairs and for centuries this tedious process was done manually.

Eventually a de-hairing machine was developed to expedite the process, but it was costly and required a climate controlled environment.

Johnstons was one of the few manufacturers to own a de-hairer but in the last few years it has been disassembled as everything sent from China now arrives already scoured and de-haired.

Next to qiviut, the soft undercoat of a musk ox, and vicuña, the previously endangered camelid from South America; cashmere is the finest fiber that can be harvested from a live animal with an average diameter of 15 to 17.5 microns (a micron measures 0.0004 of an inch).

The international standard for cashmere includes anything less than 19 microns and a minimum of 1.25″ in length.

But Johnstons buys only premium quality at 16 microns or less. If you have ever wondered why some cashmere sweaters feel softer and are more expensive than others,  the answer is in part due to the micron count. The discriminating skin can easily detect the difference even a few microns can make, even if is barely discernible to the untrained eye.

Because fine cashmere is in such high demand and limited supply, some manufacturers have been known to blend up to 20% with wool and yet still label it as 100% cashmere.

Sugden sits on the board of the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute (CCMI) headquartered in Boston whose mission is to help maintain the integrity of the cashmere label.

According to Sugden, “We spend an enormous amount of money testing products and taking appropriate legal action against those manufacturers whose garments don’t comply.” In the past few years CCHMI has won several lawsuits against well known retailers whose garments have not met the standard.

Once truckloads of burlap-baled goat hair pass through the mill’s front gate, it is sent to the fiber lab where each lot is tested for diameter and color purity. There, on the second floor of the shipping and receiving plant, Jackie Dean is responsible for testing between 50-70 fiber lots per week.

With even the best resources available, she still uses a pair of tweezers to count up to 100 hairs per sample to ensure color consistency.

Just a few dark hairs in an otherwise pure white fleece can destroy the integrity of a garment.

“A colored hair absorbs dye differently than a white one,” explains James Dracup, the Operations Director at Johnstons. “We simply can’t risk even the smallest margin of error. Although it might be virtually undetected by the consumer, what we produce has to be perfect.”

Upon passing the necessary tests, the cashmere is sent to the dye shop where huge vats of steam-cloaked steel strangely resemble the engine room on a ship.

It’s all about precision. The formula for each dye is carefully monitored. Some colors require longer “cooking” time than others depending upon the shade and intensity.

When the dyeing is 95% complete, the vats are opened for inspection. Dracup cautions that “dyeing cashmere is tricky business. If the yarn is over-dyed then we’ve lost the entire lot at a tremendous cost. By monitoring the process before it’s complete, we can avoid costly mistakes.” Each vat holds up to 100 pounds of cashmere and dyeing takes between two to four hours.

Economy of time is critical to any profitable business and freshly dyed cashmere must be dried before spinning. Since heat and agitation can dramatically alter a fiber’s natural properties, the cashmere is placed in a hydro-extractor that quickly removes the excess moisture.

Once dried the cashmere still isn’t ready to be spun. Between the scouring, dyeing and de-hairing process, the fibers need to be opened and aligned for uniform spinning. The industrial sized combs on the carding machine separate and evenly distribute the fibers into roving. The actual spinning is what unquestionably requires the greatest skill and where the true Scottish mystique lies.

As a rule, the finer the fiber the shorter the staple, the shorter the staple the more difficult it is to spin because a certain amount of twist is required to hold the fibers together.

Try twisting your eyebrows between your fingers and then twist the hair from your head –which one’s easier?

Fibers that are over spun become tight and feel stiff, but under spinning will cause them to separate and eventually unravel. Consequently, spinning necessitates the use of oils to help the fibers initially adhere to one another.

Too much or too little oil directly impacts the handle of the garment and once it is spun, the oils have to be removed to restore the cashmere’s inherent qualities.

But regardless of political climates or modern technology, Johnstons has one resource the Chinese will never capture – soft Highland water.

The very same properties that contribute to the unmistakably smooth qualities of a fine Scottish malt whiskey are what make Johnstons’ cashmere some of the softest in the world.

Unlike most mills which use harsh chemicals to eliminate the oily spinning residue, Johnstons relies on its mineral rich water to clean and soften its cashmere.

Once the spinning is complete the cashmere is ready to be woven.

Some looms are still warped by hand requiring great patience as the color scheme for each pattern is carefully threaded.

But even with close attention, the biggest hazard is out of their control.

“Polypropylene, the cord used to bundle the cashmere is the largest cause of contamination in the fiber. It can seriously foul the mill equipment causing breakdowns and delays. Even trace amounts will ultimately be reflected in the finished product because it neither dyes, spins, nor weaves like cashmere.” Sugden says with a decided note of frustration.

It is fiber nirvana to stand beside a loom watching cashmere scarves roll past in shocking pinks, familiar plaids and a score of trendy pastels, all being manufactured for elite lines in 2005 – but whose? It is a well-guarded secret as to which designer label will ultimately be stitched on the seam.

The beauty of the mill’s architecture and landscape is befitting of its product. Shrouded in ivy and a leisurely maze of walkways, Johnstons could be mistaken for a grand country manor.

In fact, so inviting is its environment that every year more than 130,000 people are welcomed at the visitor’s center where the selection of discounted 3-ply sweaters makes it worth the airfare alone. (The Scottish oatcakes served in the restaurant are not to be missed either.)

As one tours the facility, meandering from building to building and watching the different phases of production take place, it all appears so effortless.

The din of the machinery, speeding belts and spindles seem almost incongruously balanced by the calm of the operators as they walk up and down the rows; checking monitors, reading gauges and ever watchful for the inevitable flaw.

One has to wonder how such an intricate process can be made to look so easy?

The answer is simple, at Johnstons they are the experts.

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