In the luxury stakes, Italian and Scottish cashmere tend to garner all the glory. And not necessarily fairly: Joshua Ellis is an under-the-radar producer in northern England that has quietly supplied premium textiles to high-profile brands including Burberry, Ralph Lauren and Chanel.
The mill was founded in the small Yorkshire town of Batley in 1767 by the namesake Ellis, who chose Batley for its proximity to soft spring water (which is still used to treat textiles today) and got his business off the ground by making hardy materials at affordable prices. Early customers included armies, which needed a steady supply of sturdy woolen serge for uniforms.
But Ellis also understood that to succeed long-term he had to exploit a gap in the market. In the 18th century, Yorkshire was a global textile hub, filled with similar mills weaving hard-wearing tweeds and worsted wools for export. His solution was to rise above the competition and specialize in luxe fibers such as cashmere. His tactic worked. At its peak, Joshua Ellis was the largest employer in Batley, with a workforce of around 300 people.
Today the firm has 65 staff under the stewardship of managing director Oliver Platts, who has worked to contemporize the brand and improve the mill’s sustainability credentials while maintaining its old-school, small-town spirit.
Alongside weaving luxury fabrics in both cashmere and Escorial (an expensive wool that’s sourced from Australia and New Zealand) for fashion brands, Joshua Ellis produces its own accessories. Its oversize cashmere scarves—the brand calls them stoles—are exceptional, indulgently soft and warming. Here’s how they’re made, following a process that’s barely changed during the past century.
A stole will start life as raw cashmere fiber, which the mill procures from independent goat farmers in China and Mongolia. “By going direct to source, we can more closely monitor animal welfare and the sustainability of the grasslands the goats feed on,” says Platts.
To Dye For
Joshua Ellis colors the raw cashmere to the mill’s own specifications. Once dyed, the individual cashmere fibers are blended in giant metal bins to ensure that once they’re spun into yarn, they will be true to hue. Then the cashmere is spun and collected on sizable yarn cones, ready for warping.
Workers weave huge lengths of cloth that are later cut down to size. This process starts with warping, when the stole’s lengthwise yarns are drawn out and held in place by one of two giant warping machines, ready for the widthwise yarns to be woven across them. Cloths can be warped between 200 and 3,300 feet in length.
The mill’s 17 looms vary in character. Platts’s favorites are the “good old chuggers” installed in the 1980s. Cashmere yarns are delicate, so the machines operate at a gentle pace and are often restricted to weaving a single length of cloth each day.
Hand and Eye
The fabric then goes to the mending department for its first quality inspection. Every inch of the cloth is reviewed, and minute faults, breaks or knots in the weave are repaired by hand.
Softening Them Up
When cloth comes off a loom, it feels more like sandpaper than cashmere. “You have to burst the fibers to get the softness out,” Platts explains, “so we scour and rinse out the oils it picks up on its way through the looms and soften it up.”
True to tradition, Joshua Ellis then uses teasels (thistle-like plants with small spikes) to gently brush and “tease” at the milled cloth. This process lends all the company’s pieces their famous “rippled” finish—the subtle iridescent sheen that you’ll find on the very best cashmere.
When almost finished, the fabric goes through a final brush, steam and press. This raises and then sets the cashmere fibers in their softest, most luxurious state. After that, another quality inspection beckons.
Making the Cut
Only once the material is finished is it then cut into shapes resembling scarves or stoles by a machine called a slitter, “a little like making spaghetti,” says Platts. The slitter’s blades are guided by specialists who judge by eye when to cut the cloth.
Seal of Approval
Finally, each Joshua Ellis label is sewn on by hand—a last act of care that also includes an inspection to ensure there are no marks or pulls across the surface of the stole before it’s shipped out.