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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Anonymous

Like the bit at the bottom – good way to deal with detractors! Think it should read “Want to learn” though

Anonymous

Did you pick anything up from the dead stock bolts?

Gonzague

Interesting, sadly not really for bespoke customers. Do you know why Piacenza is so much cheaper than LP or Zegna? Maybe they source Chinese cashmere rather than Mongolian. Or enjoy lower marketing cost, I wonder.

Anonymous

You do know they produce suiting fabric?

Anonymous

Interesting that you mention the SFA: members include H&M (world’s second largest fast fashion producer – 11% of global market), LMVH (largest luxe producer), M&S (UK’s largest clothing retailer). For an insight into questionable practices and H&M corporate spin read (https://www.forbes.com/sites/heatherfarmbrough/2018/04/14/hm-is-pushing-sustainability-hard-but-not-everyone-is-convinced/amp/) or Lucy Siegle’s 2016 Guardian article on same. Taking a cynical standpoint organisations such as the SFA can function as a PR shield to deflect criticism and provide a set of sustainability credentials whilst the same companies continue to expand synthetic fibre use (https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/12/03/making-climate-change-fashionable-the-garment-industry-takes-on-global-warming/#706f8bb979e4), exploitative practices (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/h-and-m-zara-marks-spencer-clothes-supply-chain-pollution-factories-asia-a7786716.html) and offshore tax profiteering (https://amp.theguardian.com/business/2013/may/19/marks-spencer-tax-arrangements-europe)…everything that the SFA claims to stand against.

Peter O

Did Robert Noble close? I remember it was in danger of closing, but bought by Magee.

Joel

Hi Simon,

You mention that 17 years ago they had 300 members of staff and now just 60 as if they are suffering, however, you later mention that they have machinery now that can do the whole days work of a person in just two hours. Are they suffering or just more technological or a bit of both?

The other thing I wanted to ask is about something I read many years ago. I read that the finest fabrics are still made in England. This is because the English have older machinery and cheaper to use and for the finest cloth there is still such a small amount of the fibres so the English can produce 30 meters of cloth, whereas the Italians have much newer technology that are designed to produce 1000 plus meters and too expensive to run for 30 meters of cloth.

Is this still true?

Prince Florizel of Bohemia

Dear Simon,

Based on your article, I recently visited Lafayette Saltiel Drapiers in Paris and spent nerly two hours in this beautiful shop. It carries Joshua Ellis books and my attention was caught particularly by the overcoating bunch including nice herringbones in a good weight (850 grams). https://www.joshuaellis.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Joshua-Ellis-Fabric-A305-Elysian.pdf

Is there a reason why this cannot be ordered by my tailor and made in to a winter coat? Would you have any thought regarding the quality? Thank you.

Josef Třeštík

Thank you very much.

Dan

Tough question, but is there a discernible difference in quality and/or character between the three UK based purveyors of cashmere – Begg, Joshua Ellis and Johnstons of Elgin’s? I already have the latter two so I was wondering if purchasing Begg was worth it.