Using only the finest natural fibres, John Crombie quickly established a reputation throughout Britain for the quality of his luxury cloth. Each year, he would set out on horseback to sell his prized fabrics – not only to cloth merchants, but also direct to London tailors eager for the richest offerings to present to their noble clients.
The lion originally featured on the Crombie family coat of arms; the black and silver stripes represent the warp yarns and the flying shuttle is that of a loom; the ram's head alludes to the highly prized "Golden Fleece" of ancient mythology. The heraldic water carrier symbol in the second quarter was incorporated into the company coat of arms in the 1880s, originally featured in the coat of arms of the Ross family, who had joined the Crombie family in running the company by this time.
The company receives an award from the "Board of Trustees for Fisheries and Manufactures in Scotland", for the exceptional standard of its Forest cloth - the woollen cloth of the time. Wool was scoured and milled, spun and woven and subsequently tailored to produce Elysian overcoatings worn by the best-dressed men.
James Crombie, the eldest son, joins the expanding company, which continues to prosper through the post Napoleonic War period.
Initially, the main production was tweele and wincey, woven mainly in blues and greys, having already been dyed in the west of England. However, when Crombie’s London agent James Locke visited the company in Scotland one autumn, he was so struck by the seasonal foliage that he suggested their tints be imitated in cloth, both in solids and mixtures. Thus Crombie pioneered the creation of a fashion of colours, the making of mixtures and the look-out for something new, so that the strong point in favour of tweeds came to be the variety of colours obtained.
To Locke also is attributed the invention of the name “Tweed”, when in 1830 he misread an indistinctly handwritten invoice for a quantity of “tweels”.
By the mid-nineteenth century, the Crombie business has established its reputation amongst the fashionable drapers of London and Paris.
Crombie's fine wools, tweeds, cashmeres and merinos became the fabric of choice for Savile Row tailors and gentlemen of taste.
The name of the firm in the early years varied from time to time. Originally founded as “Knowles & Crombie”, by 1808 it was “Crombie & Company”, and in 1828 it was “John Crombie”. When the founder John Crombie’s second son (also called John) joined as a partner in 1843 it was changed to “John Crombie & Company”, and in 1854 the final title of “J & J Crombie” was adopted – which has been the company’s official name ever since.
“Regent Street premises of James Locke, the first agent to Crombie in London, 1849”
As the Victorian era progresses, the Crombie name becomes renowned for excellence and fine craftsmanship.
In 1851, Crombie's cloth was presented at the Great Exhibition, and was awarded a prize medal by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert "For Superior Manufacture and Beauty of Design".
At the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855, Crombie was similarly commended by Napoleon III.
The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 establishes a new export market.
Business increased five-fold as Crombie received large orders for "Rebel Grey" cloth from the Confederate army - who had no mills of their own in the blockaded South.
At first, fashion-conscious Southern officers placed orders directly and individually with luxurious European clothiers, paying for their uniforms out of their own pockets – while ordinary soldiers had to home-make their uniforms or scavenge them from Northern troops. But from 1862, the Confederate government in Richmond was placing orders centrally. Some of the ordered cloth was constructed into uniforms in Britain or Ireland, the rest was sent to depots in the South for assembling within the CSA itself.
Not for the last time, Crombie products had to run a blockade to be delivered to expectant customers (see 1870s and 1939).
Queen Victoria's commissioner commends Crombie cloth at the International Exhibition held in London in 1862.
John Crombie's grandson Theodore journeys extensively across the globe, with trunks filled with Crombie's trademark cloth, to secure new markets in Europe.
Such was his success that in 1870, during the Prussian siege of Paris, an order was famously sent by hot air balloon to secure delivery of the legendary cloth.
Theodore's agents went on to establish the Crombie brand name as far afield as Canada and even Japan - where Crombie's agent was Thomas Glover, who went on to help establish the Mitsubishi Corporation, and supposedly inspired Pucccini's opera Madam Butterfly.
Par Ballon Monte
A mail order “Par ballon monté” (by manned balloon) from a customer in besieged Paris in October 1870, instructing “Messieurs J & J Crombie, manufacturers, Aberdeen, Grande Bretagne” to “Please draw on the Bank of England for £1,000 one thousand pounds sterling” as payment for an order of cloth. – Crombie Archive
Links with Russia are established which persist to the present day.
Crombie entered the Russian market in 1880 with the "Russian Coat" - a heavy pile coat specially designed to shield wearers from the harsh Russian winter. Crombie soon established a favourable reputation in Russia, and became the fabric of choice for Tsars, the Russian Imperial court, and later even the Politburo.
Tsar Alexander II
When the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stepped onto British soil for the first time at Heathrow in December 1984, television commentators observed that he was wearing his British Crombie coat.
A Russian advert for Crombie coats in the 1970s
Crombie’s trade in continental Europe experiences a golden age.
To reduce its dependence on the winter trade, Crombie turned its expertise to lighter weight summer overcoats and morning coats for markets opening up in France, Germany and Belgium. Crombie saw a particular increase in European demand for its more specialist products: extravagant, soft summer overcoatings, in a range of pioneering cloths and colours.
The Crombie "Beaver-Raised" woollen overcoating proved an international success, particularly for gentlemen's wedding attire. The cloth, made from merino wool, was given a secret finish that imparted a mirror-like gloss.
Crombie’s winter trade also expanded during this decade, particularly in Russia, Poland and the Balkans.
This period of growth came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of war, which caught Crombie and its European customers equally by surprise: orders were cancelled, wagon-loads of garments were stuck at ports, and customers in Central Europe cut off by the war owed the company about £60,000 (£4.5 million in today’s value).
A thank-you letter from Buckingham Palace after a visit by Their Majesties King George V and Queen Mary to one of Crombie's factories. - Crombie Archive
During the First World War, Crombie temporarily switched its production to British military uniforms.
The Crombie company records note that during the war, the British government had to coerce many important manufacturers into accepting military contracts due to the very small margin of profit, compared to the much more lucrative private export opportunities still available. Crombie, however, voluntarily undertook large government contracts throughout the war – despite the low profit – in order to keep its personnel fully employed.
Such became the extent of Crombie's production that ultimately one tenth of all greatcoats worn by British soldiers and officers were made from Crombie cloth. The term "British Warm" was coined at this time to describe this Crombie coat. The name remains synonymous with Crombie to this day.
'[krom'bi] The name of J&J Crombie Limited, a Scottish firm of clothmakers, used to designate a type of overcoat, jacket, etc., made by them.' - Oxford English Dictionary
A period of post-war prosperity saw soaring demand for luxury clothes around the world. Crombie’s largest export markets in this decade were the USA, Canada and Japan.
Crombie’s company records describe Japan in 1918 as “in a very prosperous condition” and with dress there “being steadily influenced by Western fashions.” Japanese orders were mainly for Crombie overcoats in black and dark colours, in the best qualities of soft-handling fabrics of the lighter winter weights. Cashmere cloths were very popular, and initially Crombie received more enquiries from Japanese customers for these products than it was able to supply. During the 1920s, sales to Japan peaked at £50,000 per year (£2.35 million today’s value).
This decade also saw the death or retirement of all the remaining Crombie family owners. Rather than allow the business to fall to Trustees with no experience of it, the aging Crombies decided to sell their business to nother textile family, the famous Salts of Saltaire, West Yorkshire. The sale was completed on 31st August 1924, with the final Crombie family director retiring in 1928.
The fabric of British menswear for over two centuries moving into the future with a rich legacy.
The Duke of York (later King George VI) visits a Crombie mill in 1932, wearing a coat created by Crombie especially for him. This design was revived and re-released by Crombie in 2009 as the "King Coat".
The Great Depression saw a significant slump in orders from the American and Canadian markets – in many respects made worse by the Crombie company’s proud refusal to compromise on quality and lower its prices. In January 1930 Crombie had to put all departments on short time, with a number of employees in each department suspended for two-week periods at a time on reduced wages. By 1937, Crombie’s turnover had fallen to its lowest recorded since 1889. Fortunately, by 1938 the worst of the recession was over and demand had begun to pick up again.
In the Second World War, Crombie once again makes its contribution for Britain.
In the early years of the Second World War, the British government was desperate for export sales to provide dollars for the purchase of munitions from the USA. Therefore, with approval of the UK Board of Trade, Crombie continued to send merchants with luxury coats to New York, Chicago, Toronto and Montreal, travelling by plane from Bristol via neutral Lisbon. Indeed, during this period Crombie increased its production by 50%, and was one of Britain’s four largest woollen textile exporters to the USA.
After Lend-Lease was agreed between Roosevelt and Churchill in 1941, Britain’s demand for dollars decreased, and Crombie switched production increasingly to military uniforms. In 1943 alone, Crombie produced overcoats for 90,000 Allied soldiers, 23,000 British Navy and Royal Air Force Officers, and even 12,000 overcoats for US Army officers based in Britain.
Perhaps the most unusual order executed by Crombie during the war was in 1942 the making of cloth to a special shade of dark grey for the uniform of Norwegians sent from Britain back to Norway to assist the underground movement there.
Despite the vast quantities involved, the cloth produced by Crombie during this period maintained its legendary status, on account of the exceptional quality of every garment.
With its war work over, Crombie reassumes its position as a purveyor of fine British fashion to celebrities, royalty and statesmen worldwide.
Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 1955, the company wrote to its employees: “We can look back with satisfaction on the past; its difficulties overcome and triumphs achieved. Crombie’s reputation for quality never stood higher than it is to-day. ... No one can tell what the next 150 years may bring forth. It is certain however that there will always be a demand for coats of the highest quality and that, as in the past so in the future, Crombie will continue to be in the forefront of those who will meet demand.”
Actor James Mason with wife Pamela Ostrer. Pamela and her family went on become majority shareholders in Crombie.
Cary Grant in London, 1945
Winston Churchill with wife Clementine, 1949
The brand's enduring simplicity and elegance allow it to be rediscovered afresh by a new generation of statesmen and celebrities.
The Beatles at the Olympia Theatre, Paris 1964
Not content to rest on its laurels as producer of the world’s finest overcoats, Crombie branches out into suits. US President Ronald Reagan was an early fan: he bought 13 Crombie suits over the course of his presidency, and was wearing one when John Hinckley shot him in 1981.
When the legendary British tailor Tommy Nutter sought to return to Savile Row with his own ready-to-wear range in 1982, he approached Crombie for support. A partnership was formed, and for many years Crombie and Tommy Nutter products were sold alongside each other from the same shop on 19 Savile Row – with clients including. Elton John, Eric Clapton, Cher and Mick Jagger. Crombie’s own Spring/Summer 1985 collection was also designed under Tommy Nutter’s creative direction and when Tommy produced Jack Nicholson's Joker costumes for the 1989 Batman movie, Crombie supplied him with the cloth.
Since Tommy Nutter's sad death in 1992, Crombie has continued to release respectfully commemorative ‘Tommy Nutter’ branded products, derived from his original designs still in our archives.
Crombie opens it first stand-alone stores: in Edinburgh, followed by London and Manchester.
For nine years starting from 1995, Crombie held a Royal Warrant to His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales.
During this decade, Crombie increasingly shifted production from Scotland to sites in Yorkshire. But this was entirely fitting. When setting up his company in 1805, John Crombie had needed to overcome the shortage of trained workers locally by bringing over highly skilled foremen from Yorkshire’s textile heartland to instruct and supervise the work. Indeed, company records show that from 1812 to the 1840s, there were English foremen in each department of Crombie, having under them Scottish and English labourers working side by side.
In fact throughout the nineteenth century, Crombie would send its wool to the West of England to be dyed, then send it to Scotland for spinning, weaving, scouring and milling, then return it to Yorkshire for finishing. Thus Crombie has always been a brand associated with the whole of Britain, rather than anchored to any one region.
Sales ledgers dating back to early 1900s
Crombie launches its new website as its "fourth store", bringing the best of British style to customers all over the world. Apart from Britain of course, Crombie's classic designs prove particularly popular with online shoppers in the USA, Australia, Germany, Poland, Sweden and France.
Crombie remains an iconic British brand, trusted worldwide for the quality of its products and the timeless elegance of its designs.
Crombie continues to source only the finest raw materials to make its luxury products. To this day, the majority of fabrics used in our coats are milled in England and Scotland (otherwise in Italy). Likewise, 80% of our accessories are "Made in England", from five-fold silk ties hand rolled by English craftsmen, all the way up to handmade classic fur felt hats.