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Discovering Scotland's Handmade Clothes

Producing a scarf for the Brooks Brothers Black Fleece label, designed by Thom Browne, at J.J. & H.B. 1788 Cashmere Mills, in Innerleithen, in the Borders region.

Photo: Martin Morrell

In the House of Bruar’s Knitwear Hall, I finally came across the stylish woolens I was looking for. In shades either subtler or brighter and proportions longer and narrower than the classic styles, here at last were cashmere sweaters I could see treasuring for decades. Nearly every piece I was attracted to bore the label johnstons of elgin. This was a hopeful sign; Johnstons and the town of Elgin, a spit away from the Moray Firth that spills into the North Sea, were my final destination.

Compared with its neighbor, the 13th-century Elgin Cathedral, now a magnificent ruin, Johnstons (est. 1797) is a spry youth, though still one of the oldest mills in Scotland. Certainly, its approach to business is up-to-date. Here is a company that recognizes that visitors may have traveled hours to get to Elgin, only to forgo the mill tour in favor of a quick pass through the Heritage Centre before getting to the main objective: shopping. To be fair, the Heritage Centre, launched just one year ago with their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Rothesay (a.k.a. Charles and Camilla) in attendance, does cover all the steps of production in a succinct and polished presentation. Best of all are a taxidermied Mongolian goat (my, what a lovely coat) and a touchy-feely installation comparing the dreamiest natural fibers: cashmere, vicuña, alpaca, merino lamb’s wool, angora, and camel hair.

I had launched my trip with tartan immersion. Now, near its finish, I discovered at Johnstons’s Heritage Centre a tartan variation known as estate tweeds. Far from the salt-and-pepper variety favored by professorial types, estate tweeds, essentially plaids that are protected patterns in subtle natural shades, are expensive camouflage for hunters and sophisticated woolens for those not swaddled at birth in a family tartan. An estate tweed identifies a place rather than a clan. Johnstons stocks 30 patterns for custom orders, carries a range of clothing as well as upholstered furniture in estate tweeds, and has a bespoke service for custom tweeds.

The actual tour of Johnstons’s mill at a bend in the Lossie River covers all the usual bases, and then some. It was here that I encountered teasels. I had always wondered what gave fine cashmere a ripply finish akin to silky-smooth curly maple. Turns out it’s the very same gift of nature—the thistle-like head of a teasel plant—that fluffs the upholstery of Rolls-Royces. When wet, the spiky ends of the head “tease out” and comb the cashmere fibers. A cashmere scarf or sweater that pills hasn’t met a teasel.

A big revolving drum with metal bars houses the teasels, yet another machine among dozens that hum and whir and clickety-clack throughout Johnstons’s campus of mill buildings dating as far back as the late 18th century. But it takes a skilled worker to recognize when teasels need to be replenished, just as it takes an old hand to sense how long to leave wool in a dyeing vat to achieve a particular color. My visits to the textile mills had delivered an unexpected reaction: an appreciation more for the Marys, Margarets, and Graces, the Brians, Arthurs, and Georges, than for all the 19th- and 20th-century automation that had propelled Scotland to international standing in the world of woolens. It was eye work and handwork, so practiced they appeared intuitive, that deserved the glory and that led me to understand why Scotland-made came at a price worth paying.

Heather Smith MacIsaac was formerly an editor at Travel + Leisure.

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