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Johnstons of Elgin explores new treatment for coarse Scottish wool


UKFT member Johnstons of Elgin is working with Highlands-based sustainable weaver Prickly Thistle to explore a new process that could see natural, eco-friendly Scottish wool fibres used more widely in the Scottish textiles industry.

Inspired by the advancements in softening treatments for human hair, a first-of-its-kind project is looking at ways to make typically thick, coarse Scottish sheep fleece more suitable for use in clothing and other textile products.

The research project is being supported by the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) and the University of Edinburgh.

As part of the feasibility study, chemistry researchers aim to use enzymes that naturally decompose wool to treat the fibres in a controlled way to achieve a thinner, softer material. Variables such as the temperature, quantity of the enzyme and length of time the fibres are treated for will be tested to deliver the best outcome.

Despite there being more than six million sheep in Scotland, homegrown wool fleece can cost farmers more than it is worth to shear and is most likely to be used for carpeting or hard-wearing upholstery instead of clothing. In some cases, it is disposed of on the farm site.

As well as increasing the value of the natural material, the project could also have environmental benefits. The impact of fashion is widely reported: globally, less than 1% of fabrics are recycled as clothing and more than 60% are derived from petrochemicals. Less than 2% of textiles come from animal fibre and, in Scotland, the majority of the yarn used in luxury clothing such as cashmere and Merino wool is imported from overseas.

The Prickly Thistle mill is one of the youngest in Scotland and recently featured in the Channel 4 series, Miriam and Alan: Lost in Scotland, where Alan Cumming and Miriam Margolyes designed their own bespoke ‘Aliam’ tartan.

Clare Campbell, founder of Prickly Thistle Scotland, said: “This project could be the catalyst for a significant shift in Scotland’s approach to manufacturing homegrown clothing and fabrics, bringing our native fleece to a point where we can use more of it for a much wider range of products than ever before.”

Initial results from the study are expected later this year, which will determine whether a suitable yarn quality can be achieved and used in future products designed by both Prickly Thistle and Johnstons of Elgin. The project team also hope to share their findings with the wider wool industry, in the hope of opening up a new Scottish supply chain and contributing to the sector’s regeneration.

Chimaeze Onyeiwu, procurement and technical director – cashmere and wool, at Johnstons of Elgin, said: “This project represents an alignment of sustainable goals, industrial know-how and industrial biological expertise. We are channelling this towards elevating the value of Scottish textiles, by attempting to regenerate the quality of Scottish wools through controlled enzymatic treatment.”

Liz Fletcher, director of business engagement at IBioIC, added: “Industrial biotechnology skills and techniques can benefit such a wide range of sectors, underpinned by a collective ambition to develop more sustainable ingredients and materials. For Scottish fashion, it could unlock a brand-new supply chain by manipulating the natural decomposition of woollen fibres to make them more suitable and comfortable for the wearer – as well as reducing the environmental cost.”


Johnstons of Elgin is a UKFT member. Interested in UKFT membership? Find out more here.