The Joshua Ellis mill: Factory visit

Friday, February 15th 2019
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The Joshua Ellis mill is just outside Batley.

That’s not a name many readers will associate with British cloth. They’re more likely to know Huddersfield for suits, or Scotland for tweed and cashmere, and with the recent popularly of Fox, perhaps Somerset for flannels.

But Joshua Ellis is arguably the leading British mill for fine wool and cashmere fabrics. Huddersfield is mostly worsteds (smooth wools used for suits) and Scottish mills largely make knitwear or accessories (Johnston’s, Begg) or rougher cloths like tweed (Lovat, Moon).

The reason most readers won’t know Joshua Ellis well is that their cut-length business (selling to tailors) is pretty small, with most work done at larger scale for designers (eg Ralph Lauren).

The competition is largely in Italy – the likes of Loro Piana and Piacenza. This is the biggest source for luxury British jacketings.

This was largely new to me too, but slowly unravelled when I travelled up to Batley to see Joshua Ellis last year, and spoke to the team.

Unfortunately, as with much manufacturing in the UK, the story is largely one of decline.

Seventeen years ago, Joshua Ellis employed over 300 people, and was based in the centre of town. You can still see that building (dating from 1767) and other mills when you arrive on the train.

Today, they’re based outside the centre and have around 60 people. But they’ve survived by producing at the very top of the luxury market, as many customers have migrated to Asia.

Ironically, the area they’re now in was known for ‘shoddy’ work in the past: the re-using and re-weaving of fabric. (That’s where the term comes from, and our association of it with poor quality.)

Here’s one advantage of being the last mill standing: you’re likely to have a good archive, both from your own work and from that of others.

That was the case when I visited Robert Noble a few years ago in Peebles – though Noble itself has now sadly closed.

And it’s the case at Joshua Ellis. They have their own archive, pieces collected from several other mills as they’ve closed, and even books stored for other institutions.

The impressively old books in the office, for example (pictured below) are actually part of a collection owned by the Royal College of Art, which Joshua Ellis is looking after.

The more recent archive of the team’s designs downstairs is an absolute treasure trove.

For every cloth that goes into production, many more will be considered, so there are lots of variations on cloths that look like something you would have seen on a brand in the past.

You’re quickly swamped with different fibre options (Escorial and cashmere largely), different plys and different finishes.

Those last points are something that tends to separate Joshua Ellis from the Italian mills by the way: closer-set fabrics with less finishing.

This generally means they won’t feel as fluffy and soft at first, but age better. (A little like bare-finish cashmere on the knitwear side.)

They also tend to use stronger cashmeres (Mongolian rather than Chinese) and like working with something like Escorial wool, because it feels like cashmere but is more robust.

The Joshua Ellis mill itself is a pleasing mix of old and new machinery.

There are some kept for one particular cloth, even when that cloth is a little less fashionable for a while. (Such as one for producing original duffle-coat cloth.)

And ones that have been invested in recently and are speeding up aspects of the work. (Such as the drawing-in machine, which does in two hours work that would take a person all day.)

Among British mills, Joshua Ellis is quite unusual in doing all its finishing itself. Those in and around Huddersfield tend to outsource this work (see my piece on WT Johnson’s here).

The older machines look the nicest, with wooden elements that gain a nice patina (such as the brushing machine above, with it’s embedded teasles).

But even the modern pieces like the drawing-in machine (below) have something of an appeal in their Technicolour graphics.

It reminded me of a 1990s-era computer game.

Joshua Ellis has also started doing more of its own scarves – which is what prompted their appearance in our pop-up shop in a couple of weeks.

This began four years ago, and it's grown quite quickly, with Japan the biggest market.

The company had done scarves historically, but largely for brands. Doing it themselves is a nice way to use the machinery to produce something different, and it’s more sustainable under their own name.

(Not that weaving cloth and scarves is the same – cloth for a scarf will always be woven a little looser, and usually have more of a finish.)

Back in the office, it was interesting to talk to the team about their work with the Sustainable Fibre Alliance, which brings together brands, farmers and manufacturers to try and improve working practices.

It includes brands like Marks & Spencer’s and LVMH, and charities like the RSPCA and WWF, as well as mills like Joshua Ellis, Begg and Johnton’s.

Most fibres like wool and cashmere and very sustainable and environmentally friendly – unless the land is over-farmed.

It is that over-farming that has caused huge problems in Mongolia, and with cotton in places like Kazakhstan.

Personally, I identify more with these balanced, inclusive organisations than with the single-issue campaigning groups.

We finished our visit with an optimistic discussion of that, and then one of the various training schemes at the mill.

In among the mill team are six full-time apprentices, and we were told 15% of the workforce are in some form of training.

It isn’t easy in an area like Batley, where there isn’t the same pool of talent as in Scotland or Huddersfield. But the management team recognise that it’s the only way to go on.

If you’re going to be the last mill in the area, you have to be the best one - and planning well for the future is the only way to do it.

www.joshuaellis.com

Photography: James Holborow

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