The Final Touch: Why Fabric Finishers Are Style’s Unsung Heroes

The Final Touch: Why Fabric Finishers Are Style’s Unsung Heroes

In a dank, cavernous room inside the HQ of textile finishers WT Johnson & Sons – an unassuming brown-brick facility in an industrial zone of Huddersfield, a market town in Northern England – sits a vast, behemoth of a machine. About the size of a small articulated truck, it looks like something from the height of the industrial revolution. And, improbably, this unsightly contraption has played a significant role in fashion history.

Called “The Ekofast,” it combines high temperature exposure and heavy pressing to give stabilisation and superior handle to worsted and woollen-blended fabrics. Ralph Lauren, back in the 80s, became so enamoured with its effect on cloth, the machine is still, today, a major player in the labels’ output. What did Lauren love so much about the machine’s effect? The way it makes fabric look “luxurious, but also like it belonged to your grandfather and has been in the attic for a little while,” as the company’s Managing Director Paul Johnson puts it adding: “What we do remains the typical Ralph Lauren Polo finish today.”

Many of the garments you see in boutiques belonging to brands such as Burberry, Paul Smith, Chanel, Tom Ford, Hermes and Gucci were ushered into life here, post-weaving, at the world's leading textile dyeing and finishing company – a family-run business founded in 1910. Many garments here at Anatoly & Sons, too, were given extra zest of character, within these walls – Scabal (the English mill which provided the fabric for this blue mohair suit, this business-friendly navy pinstripe two piece, and much more suiting in our shop section) is, after all, one of WT Johnson & Sons’ major customers.

The Ekofast is just one of the many pieces of technological wizardry providing a constant cacophonous soundtrack in this building. In another room, inside ancient-looking (but highly sophisticated) scouring dollies made of wooden planks, fabric is sluiced in a mixture of natural soap and hot water, removing oils and waxes, before being squeezed through rollers made of a special water-resistant African hardwood. In the milling section, fabric is crushed between metal slabs whilst being doused with very hot water (soft, and therefore kind to the cloth, in this part of the word). This stage – which involves speeds and exposure durations being calculated meticulously – causes a pre-determined level of shrinkage, blurring the contrasts between colours (imagine a sharp-lined plaid pattern being recreated by Claude Monet and you get the idea).

Elsewhere, following “tentering” (drying, at a very specific heat), a process is carried out whereby ultra-fine knife blades shave excess fibres from the cloth’s surface, ensuring it’s perfectly smooth; in another zone, cloth is pressed at more than 100 degrees Celsius to afford maximum softness and drape. Tailors and cutters have, over the years, coined the phrase “Makes up well” to refer to cloth which behaves obediently in their hands: and it is institutions such as this – as well as the sheep farmers, weavers and mother nature herself – whom we should thank for the traits that make them bestow this compliment upon top quality fabrics.

Naturally, the type of finishing processes a cloth goes through can differ depending on its purpose. A perfect example is this Blue Huddersfield Fresco Suit, made from a fabric whose open-weave, high-twist construction means that it can breathe, resist wrinkles, and keep an elegant drape, even on the balmiest of Californian days. That cloth is the work of another English mill, Hardy Minnis, a mill which does its own finishing in-house. 

Fresco cloth was registered to us back in 1907 and we describe it as the original travel suit,” Managing Director Iain Milligan tells Anatoly & Sons. “We still produce it in the same way as it was produced originally. The performance comes from a mix of the up twisted yarn and set of the cloth plus a finishing routine that involves keeping the surface of the cloth very clean and free from loose fibres. During the process we introduce a bit of natural stretch to enhance the performance but don’t put too much press on the cloth to keep the dry handle.”

Wear the garment in question, and his words will carry even more resonance. Especially if you’re one of those clued-up sartorialists who are up to speed on the crucial role finishers – the unsung heroes of fashion – play in a realm in which they’re largely overshadowed by tailors, cutters and designers.

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