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Grading Cashmere

UKFT MANUFACTURING HEROES
JACKIE DEAN

This article was originally featured on the UKFT website in October 2020 as part of their series celebrating the individuals behind the British fashion and textile industry. Manufacturing Heroes tells the stories of the craft, talent and people that often remain behind the scenes, but who are critical to the continued growth and success of this dynamic industry.

Jackie Dean is a raw materials technician in quality assurance at Johnstons of Elgin, in charge of fibre testing of all the company’s cashmere and wool. She is known in the industry for being extremely precise and well respected for testing, which is largely done by hand and eye.

Jackie was born and bred in Elgin, Scotland, and joined Johnstons as a 16-year-old straight from school, 44 years ago. The company was founded in 1797 in her local town and has two sites: a cashmere and wool weaving mill in Elgin and a knitwear mill in Hawick in the Scottish Borders.

Jackie Dean with cashmere samples

She started her career in spinning before moving into testing in the yarn lab and around 30 years ago she moved into the testing of raw materials. Here, she worked with John Boyd, who she describes as “the best mentor I could have – he passed on a lot of valuable knowledge”.

She tests the raw fibres for colour, length, diameter and contamination, and although technology has advanced, not a lot has changed in her role over the years. “Traditional skills are the best,” she says. “I do a lot of the testing by hand and eye. You can get a machine that does it but we feel that a manual test has a better result.”

Jackie Dean checking the quality of raw cashmere

A typical day for Jackie will see a new batch of raw material get delivered to the mill and she will then perform a series of tests at the mill, then send it away for further testing. She says: “If the batch hasn’t come in with a chemical certificate, we will arrange for that and we also have secondary testing for the composition. I can easily identify that the fibre is wool or cashmere or rabbit, testing by hand and eye, but customers require independent certification to ensure that the fibre is pure and what it says it is.”

The biggest challenge she faces is working to tight timescales and lead times. “Sometimes batches are late being delivered and we need to get it tested as quickly as possible without cutting corners,” she explains. “It’s all about getting stuck into it and getting it done to enable the dyehouse to start their process. It can be quite stressful if everyone is shouting for it but you can’t pass it if you don’t know if it’s correct. We always get there in the end. The quality is the most important thing so if it takes longer than normal, they will just have to wait.”

It is the quality of the final product and working as part of a team that keeps her motivated. “I like seeing good results, and beautiful product at the end. If you see a nice product at the end it motivates you to keep going,” she says.

She believes patience is a key skill in her role, explaining: “You can’t rush it because the quality comes first. You need to listen and communicate, ask questions but don’t rush it as quality is the most important thing. Over the years, I’ve developed the ability to tell before I start testing if it is going to be a good lot. Suppliers know what I do so they know they won’t pull the wool over my eyes. They know we’ll go back to them if anything is wrong. Sometimes it can just be a minor fault but if it is anything even slightly more significant we then have to send it back and the whole process takes even longer.”

She also likes being part of the Johnstons team. “It’s a family-run business and you feel as though you are one of the family working here,” she explains. “I’ve made a lot of friends and it’s a happy place to work.” “I can actually see the mill from my house,” she laughs. “I’ve recently been training one of my nieces to do the lab work. There’s a real sense of community.”

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Jackie takes great pride in working for a company with a global reputation for producing beautiful quality products that has been in business for more than 220 years. She also loves seeing the end product and knowing her role in making it happen. There’s a lot of work that goes into making one product,” she says. “It’s great to be part of the process. We have a design showroom and store on site here in Elgin so you get to see the products a lot. We also have customers who come to visit. When they have a mill tour, they come in to see what I do – they take pictures, which I dread – but they also ask a lot of questions and are interested in the raw materials, which is satisfying.”

Simon Cotton, CEO of Johnstons of Elgin, says Jackie plays a key role in ensuring the company’s products are of the highest quality. He says: Jackie is known for her unflinching commitment to quality and has built a reputation right around the world for always insisting on the very best with no compromise. Her complete commitment to ensuring that we have the very best fibre right at the start of the process enables everyone else to build from those excellent foundations.”

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