By Kristy Dorsey

After more than 20 years of working with luxury textiles, Joan Johnston said she wanted to “do something good for the planet”. Aiming to cut down on the considerable waste within the textiles industry, she started looking for an environmentally friendly business concept and eventually found cashmere guard, the long outer layer of hair that protects the goat’s soft undercoat.

It takes about three goats to make a single jumper, but only about 30 per cent of fleece brushed annually from each animal is used in cashmere products because the predominant guard hair is too straight for traditional knitting and weaving. Although used as a source of lanolin for shampoo and other products, the hair itself largely goes to waste.

Ms Johnston’s innovation uses cashmere guard to create a filling for bedding products that control users’ comfort through the natural temperature-regulating qualities of the fibre. Blended with “a touch” of British wool, the filling is on the verge of receiving patent protection and is the foundation of the Ava Innes brand Ms Johnston has established from her home in Moray.

“The business was launched in 2019 but the product development side started two to three years before that, so I have been working on this for about five years now,” she said.

Originally from Northern Ireland, Ms Johnston spent much of her working life based in England where she held senior creative and commercial roles with renowned luxury brands such as Ralph Lauren, Burberry, Dunhill and Etro. Her career included various international stints in the US, Italy, France and Japan.

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She moved to Elgin with her husband and two daughters in 2013, having “reached that point in my life that I wanted to re-balance” career and family. There she took up the role of design and creative director for Johnstons of Elgin, the high-end cashmere manufacturer and retailer.

She left Johnstons in August 2015, just weeks before launching Ava Innes at the London Design Fair. The original business plan was to focus on sales to boutique hotels and upmarket accommodation providers, but as the Covid pandemic took hold in the opening months of 2020, she quickly shifted tack in favour of online sales direct to consumers.

Revenues under this model reached £120,000 in the first full financial year, but as restrictions ease and hotels begin trading more freely, Ms Johnston is predicting “much better growth” as Ava Innes resumes discussions with accommodation providers.

“We are now back to having those conversations again,” she said. “It feels like we lost a year, but thankfully we have been able to keep going with online sales through the website.”

The company recently struck an agreement to supply its cashmere duvets and pillows to a major whisky brand for use in its VIP accommodation in Scotland. The deal will promote the Ava Innes brand to visitors, inviting them to purchase their own bedding after sleeping with it for themselves.

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Ms Johnston is hoping to break into profitability next year, a milestone that will trigger the payment of 10 per cent of profits to the Afghan goat herders – most of whom are women – who supply Ava Innes with its key raw material. The money will be distributed through the merchant that she works with, who guarantees traceability on all of the cashmere guard hair.

This is shipped directly by boat from Afghanistan to Yorkshire, where the material is processed on a traditional machine that is “probably about 60 years old” and has been re-built with new technological additions. This significantly reduces carbon emissions compared to other textiles, which are often shipped to multiple destinations to handle each step in processing and spinning the fabric.

“We feel we have been able to make the journey as short as is practically possible,” she said.

Customers say sleeping under cashmere helps them rest better, as they never get too hot or too cold. Ava Innes is preparing to carry out formal sleep testing of its products – plans for which were stalled because of the pandemic – but menopausal women suffering from night sweats have reported improved sleep through the products’ temperature regulation.

Likewise, Ms Johnston said couples where one partner was previously too hot or too cold say they now sleep comfortably under the same duvet.

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Unlike feather, down and synthetic products, Ava Innes’ duvets and pillows are fully bio-degradable, meaning they can be returned to the ground at the end of life rather than going to landfill. Ms Johnston said she hopes that in creating a business “to do good”, she is setting an example that her daughters will learn from “whatever they choose to do in the future”.

“Textiles is a traditional industry and innovation is key to survival,” she said. “The hierarchy is traditionally dominated with men in the most senior roles, despite the majority of women evident in design or on the shop floor.

“This is slowly changing, but still has a long way to go.”


What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?

I am fortunate to have travelled extensively both with business and for pleasure. Twenty years ago I travelled around New Zealand South Island in a “Rent A Wreck” car and this remains a firm favourite. Its rich natural landscape of rainforests, glaciers and volcanoes was a great place to escape to, away from the intensity of a demanding job.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal?

In the early 80s I was interviewed by a local journalist and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. My answer was "I know I want to travel and see a different world from the one I grew up in", but I wasn't sure what that career would be. The journalist interpreted this as "I want to be an air hostess”. I recall how indignant I felt that he thought I wanted to work on the plane – no, I wanted to be a passenger. This attitude was reflective of the time.

Fortunately, I have been able to realise this with extensive travel within the USA, Europe and Asia in my roles as a design and USA sales director over 20 years.

What was your biggest break in business?

Joining a traditional UK-based textile company with a strong leader who saw the potential in his team. A combination of hard work and support led me to be the first female director appointed to the board of this 300-year-old family business.

In more recent times, connecting with like-minded entrepreneurs who are breaking away from the ordinary with extraordinary products.

What was your worst moment in business?

My worst moment was September 11th 2001 when the Twin Towers were attacked. I was about to fly to New York. It was an awful time for everyone. Ten days later we continued with our business trip. Our office in the Empire State building looked down where the Twin Towers once stood and you could still see the smoke, a reminder to make the most of life when you can.

Who do you most admire and why?

I most admire people who have overcome adversity and triumphed in whatever field they have chosen. Life is challenging and it is how people deal with those challenges that make them good leaders, citizens or friends.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?

I love reading classic books to my 10-year-old daughter. It gives her different perspectives on life and opens up all sorts of conversations. We are currently reading “Little Women”.

I have just received a copy of "Almost is Not Good Enough" by Andrew Jennings, a veteran of the retail industry and will enjoy reading it this weekend.

My music taste is diverse depending on the mood from Coldplay, Snow Patrol, U2 and Taylor Swift to classical. I always like to listen to new things and often ask Alexa to play music at random.