'Modern Heritage' is a term often used to describe the balance between history and innovation that exists within our business. However, what does it mean to the families behind Johnstons of Elgin? We sat down with the great-granddaughters of the company's founder and owning families to find out what Modern Heritage means to them.
Company Chairman Jenny Urquhart is the great-granddaughter of former Johnstons of Elgin owner Eddie Harrison and represents the fourth generation of the current owning family, while Sophie George, who is currently undertaking a three-month internship at our Elgin site, is the great, great, great, great, great-granddaughter of company founder Alexander Johnston. Both women enjoy learning about the company and families' history, from their parents and grandparents. Jenny believes Modern Heritage is about continuing the underpinning values of their great grandparents, such as supporting the local community, through providing meaningful employment, while embracing new ideas to move the business forward.
"Eddie Harrison joined in 1904 as a junior partner to the third generation of the Johnston family," she explains. "He was a textile designer and an artist, very much a creative man. He was interested in the science behind how things worked and created the most exquisite designs that our design team still reference today. I think he was also a very kind man. He liked making Johnstons and the local community a great place to work and to live. I was recently reminded, by a colleague who was retiring, that he would buy two cashmere jumpers each year and have his initials embroidered onto them. He was monogramming way ahead of his time."
For Sophie, the history-rich buildings at our Elgin site represent the heritage aspect of the company, and she believes that what happens inside is where you find the modernity. "In one department there are three generations of machines all working side by side," she says. "It's also a warm and welcoming community. It really fills you with pride." She adds that patterns from our archives are often used in new ways to create unique, contemporary pieces, very much embodying the Modern Heritage theme. With this in mind, we asked Jenny if there are any products from our archives that she would like to see reimagined. She says with a smile, "In the 1990s we produced more intarsia designs for women with floral and more abstract designs. Cardigans are making a comeback so, purely from a nostalgic point of view, I'd say high button cardigans with intarsia designs. I still have my mums."
Discussing more contemporary pieces, we talk about the innovation aspect of Modern Heritage, using the highest quality fibres in new and exciting ways. Jenny describes this season's Multi-Layer Tissue Cashmere Blanket Scarf - four scarves woven together to create a stunning statement piece. "It's made from the lightest weight cashmere, and it's definitely a piece you would wear for special occasions, and you would treasure it. It's an heirloom of innovation," she says.
Women In Business
Asked how she thinks Alexander Johnston, who founded the company more than 200 years ago, would have felt about women taking leading roles in the business, Sophie imagines he might have been surprised. "I don't think he would have believed it. Things were very different for women then. Although Alexander wouldn't have been able to establish Johnstons of Elgin without his sister, Barbara, who funded him."
Jenny believes her great grandfather would have been thrilled to see her in her current role. "My mum always said that my great grandfather would have been very proud of me working in my various roles. I was born in 1978, and he died in 1979. He told my mother he wanted to meet me and that he knew I was going to be a girl, before the days of baby gender scans. I think he would have been very supportive and open to seeing women play leading roles in business."
Both Jenny and Sophie attest that while women in positions of influence might be considered relatively modern, the women in the Johnston and Harrison families have always been integral to the company's success. Jenny explains, "The women were equally important, the whole team plays a role in a multi-generational family business like ours. Historically women didn't necessarily work in the business, but they would have added huge value behind the scenes."
Heritage of the Future
As Johnstons of Elgin celebrates its 222nd birthday, Jenny and Sophie consider the heritage of tomorrow. How will future generations look back on this period of our history? The introduction of Whole Garment Technology means many of our products can now be made without seams for increased comfort. We can also create extremely lightweight products from the finest fibres such as cashmere and merino wool. Jenny explains that we improve on quality every day, and we are always embracing innovation. "We are currently looking at co-bots. Not to reduce the number of people in the business but using technology to assist you in the job that you do," she says.
The unique skills of our craft, passed down through generations, performed with the help of robots. There surely isn't a clearer image of Modern Heritage than that.
Shop our Modern Heritage collection, including our Multi-Layer Tissue Cashmere Blanket Scarf here.