Kickstarter: Help to launch The Great Northern Cloth


Some of you have followed my wool journey over the last couple of years, or have, indeed been part of it: I hope to bring to the market, for the first time, a Merino cloth with a 100% British production chain, including a new breed of sheep as raw material producers.

Everything is now in place to make this happen, but I need help to fund the next stages of the project: I have launched a Kickstarter campaign, hoping to raise money to create a brand, a dedicated website and to secure the 2017 supply of an extraordinary and very rare wool.

I embarked on the project when I realised it was impossible to source a light weight, soft wool cloth with true British provenance. I didn’t want to reinvent tweed, as my customers are looking for a lighter and softer fabric, with character but not the typical weight and ruggedness of the material. When I was unable to find such a fabric with a 100% British production chain, I took it into my own hands to produce it.

It took me 18 months to build a relationship with five Scottish farmers who keep Merino sheep that were originally bred for research into a more sustainable local wool supply. Their fine wool can easily compete with imported fleece and I was eventually able to purchase their 2016 ‘clip’ (the wool ‘harvest’). Long standing woollen spinners R. Gledhill Ltd in the Yorkshire borders didn’t hesitate when I asked them to process the wool for me but nobody knew exactly how the wool would lend itself in a woven cloth, or how it would take to the dye.

However, the risk paid off: last week I took delivery of the incredibly fine, soft suiting cloth, just under 12 oz weight, in a classic Herringbone pattern, and different colour ways. Project backers will be able to acquire a piece of textile history in the form of a scarf, a length of the cloth, or even the first bespoke garment ever made from the fabric.

Rewards are ready and waiting to be shipped in time for Christmas (with exception of bespoke garments, which take more time)

For more on the story and a chance to pledge your support, please go to https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/895697676/the-great-northern-cloth

Thanks for your support, it means a lot to me!

The Great Northern Cloth

The Great Northern Cloth

Pictured above is Scottish grown Merino wool, the only one of its kind. It is incredibly soft, not what you would expect from a sheep that spends most of its live outdoors, in the hills of the Borders region. This week, it will be used to weave, for the first time, a fine cloth with a 100% British pedigree – The Great Northern Cloth.

Over the last 18 or so months, I worked with a group of highly knowledgeable people, all experts in the Northern world of wool manufacturing: Scottish sheep farmers, designers and graders, the British Wool Marketing Board and England’s long established woollen yarn spinners and weavers, they all played their part in bringing this remarkable wool onto a loom.

A family run business, R. Gledhill was founded in 1936 by Ronald Gledhill. Their Pingle Mill is situated in the village of Delph on the Yorkshire border, where textile manufacturing has been carried out since 1777. Peter Gledhill didn’t hesitate when I first showed him a single lock of the fleece, to assure me that this wool would make an extraordinary yarn, fit for a fine suiting cloth, the only one of its kind with a 100% British production chain.

As I had found out earlier, hardly any wool from British sheep is being used in British woven suiting cloth. The one notable exception is tweed, of course, which is, however, a whole different category of cloth – designed to keep us warm and dry when in the great outdoors.

The Great Northern cloth is a contemporary take on tweed, it will have all the character of a true British cloth but will be a lot less bulky, perfect to wear at the office, whilst travelling or even to a formal occasion. The best thing? It will be incredibly soft to the touch and flatter with a wonderful, supple drape.

Starting today, you can follow the story of the wool, the people who look after these special sheep and the journey to find the producers with the skills to make this remarkable, fine cloth, 100% in Britain.

At the time of writing, the cloth is still in loom and I can’t wait to see the first piece being finished soon. I had a sneak preview to how it will look like when I asked artisan weaver @woveninthebone for hand samples to help me decide on patterns and colours for the new cloth. Pictured below is one of her samples, using a lambswool, as it comes closest to the new yarn in terms of fineness and soft hand. I can’t take my eyes off it.

Tailoring Academy

The Tailoring Academy

As a Master Tailor and Textile Engineer with 30 years experience, I am delighted to launch The Tailoring Academy as the first UK training centre to offer a new, exciting opportunity to learn the all important skills in a modern way – the new ABC Level 5 Diploma in Bespoke Tailoring. Combining the heritage of tailoring training with key production skills and cutting practices, this specialist qualification will give learners the opportunity to develop industry-relevant knowledge and demonstrate high levels of speed, accuracy, precision and consistency.

Fortunate to have received my training at Tom Reimer, Germany’s answer to the world-famous Savile Row tailors, I had opportunity to work for some of the most knowledgable and discerning customers. This was ultimately key to honing my own skills to the highest level. Read here about how making tails for the great, late Luciano Pavarotti, a truly terrifying challenge at first, turned out to be one of the most rewarding encounters of my learning years.

Today, providing years of meticulous training is often not a realistic option for small businesses who need to keep their cost in check. Common practice is therefore to train apprentices to be specialists in one area only – trouser makers, cutters or finishers – and become part of what is, essentially, a small production chain. This is beneficial for the employer, of course, but does not enable the younger generation of tailors to be entrepreneurs themselves. The wider issue is that skills are lost as a consequence.  The Tailoring Academy is here to change this.

The time has come for a training facility that addresses the shortage of dedicated practical training for a new generation of aspiring tailors. The Tailoring Academy provides a complete tailoring training schedule and fully a acknowledged qualification. I believe that young people with a passion for the craft deserve a modern approach to their training. Anyone willing to invest time and dedication to learn a skill that knows no shortcuts should receive a full education that empowers them to be masters of the craft.

In addition to the full-time diploma course, The Tailoring Academy also has short courses for individual and small groups on offer.

The Tailoring Academy

 

Image @fionabaileyphotography

One – Four – One

Earlier this month, I drove up to Galashiels, in the Scottish Borders, to collect two bales of rather special wool from a sorting depot. My hope is to produce, with the help of long established mills in the North, a cloth that has never before been woven in Britain, despite the rich local textile expertise and abundance of sheep found up and down the country.

You may ask what is so special about this wool and why I think people should know about it.

As a craftsman, I firmly believe in sourcing my material locally, from British producers. Much of the best cloth in the world is still woven in the Northern mills, which I am fortunate to have on my doorstep. However, when it comes to sourcing the raw material for the cloth, localism is an altogether more complex topic, as I discovered when my search for a suiting cloth made from British wool didn’t produce any results.

Unable to find a single producer using local wool in their fabric, I contacted the British Wool Marketing Board, who confirmed that today almost 100% of wool used in British made fabric is imported from overseas. See also the BBC’s article on the ‘English Suit’.

This is despite an estimated 32 million sheep kept in Britain, whose fleeces, as I was about to find out, are too coarse for the use in a modern, light weight and soft cloth. The consequence is that often the wool doesn’t even fetch enough to cover the cost of the shearing. I was appalled and intrigued in equal measures and decided to dig deeper to document what I would find out.

It was Scottish artisan weaver Sam Goates who told me about a flock of sheep that produce the finest, softest wool, in her home country. The fleece is what has become known as Scottish Merino – a wool that has never been used in a woven cloth in Britain before. Here is why:

The  Merino breed, coveted for the finest, softest wool on Earth, originates in Europe, where it was first kept by the kings of Spain. Small flocks of sheep were later gifted to the rulers in Saxony and Britain, before Australia and New Zealand were discovered for their vast pastures and mild climate in the late 1800s, and the tradition ended. Ever since, Merino wool has been imported to the UK from the far side of the globe, to be woven into the fine cloth the British woollen industry is famous for. 

Towards the end of the 20th century, increasingly under pressure to find a more sustainable source for the wool, the British government launched – but later abandoned – research into the re-introduction of Merino sheep in the UK. The breed created for this research was a mix of 75% Saxon Merino and 25% Shetland, making it hardy for the Scottish climate.

The sheep, created to give the finest wool under the harshest conditions, were kept at the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute in the Scottish Borders and named ‘Bowmont’, after a water flowing nearby. When project funding dried up after the closure of the institute in April 2011, the flock was dispersed across the UK. One half was taken on by a fine fibre producer in Devon, who is today successfully supplying wool for yarn, however not for weaving but knit wear. The remaining animals stayed in Scotland and were kept on various farms scattered around the country. 

I was able to agree purchasing terms with the five individual growers whose wool has been graded at the highest fineness level available in Britain, grade 141 (certified by the British Wool Marketing Board). The wool can easily compete with fleece imported from Australia and New Zealand. Not having initially planned to produce a cloth myself, the project has now evolved from mere story-telling to commissioning the weave of the first ever Scottish Merino cloth. The production chain will be 100% British, from fleece to finished fabric.

Documenting the process and showing all producers involved (including the sheep), in their work environments, will prove that not only do we have the skill and infrastructure but also the raw material to make one of the finest, softest cloths in the world, right here in Britain. If the new cloth can be shown to be successful, the group of growers hope that younger farmers in the region feel encouraged to take on the breed, to help grow the flock and, with that, create a sustainable income source over time.


Galashiels Wool Depot

Tailoring for Women

Men traditionally make up the vast majority of customers in bespoke tailoring, ordering a classic business suit or coat for the winter months from their trusted craftsman of choice. In sharp contrast, and despite a growing number of women in powerful, well remunerated positions, only around 10% of the UK bespoke market is accounted for by females. Why is that?

I enjoy tailoring for women, finding it tremendously satisfying to plan and then create a spectacular outfit together, with a mutual understanding of how it will ultimately look and feel. But after close to 30 years in the field, I can see two major hurdles when approaching a female bespoke commission: there is a distinctive technical and a restrictive societal challenge.

The Technical Challenge: Cutting for the Female Shape and Psyche

Women have different sartorial requirements than men due to their more shapely figures but also because they take a less utilitarian approach to their wardrobe. It takes solid technical skill and insight into the female psyche to respond to the challenge of cutting for a female client.

The modern interpretation of a female suit is calling for a precise yet flattering cut close to the body, sometimes incorporating a masculine edge to make it look its sharpest. It needs to work when worn casually but equally when buttoned up, requiring a structure that is both firm, to hold the shape, but also soft and lithe, to go with the flow of the movement.

The other stipulation is less tangible but not less demanding. A woman’s suit must work in more than one circumstance, a proviso that a man’s outfit rarely faces: dressing up or down, to suit formal settings as well as more casual circumstances, women like to play with their wardrobe, they need it to allow them to go with the occasion and mood of the day. Men, for the most part, want to feel comfortable in their skin, their most important demand is a perfect fit. A woman has many other demands, not all of which are immediately clear at the time of order and can lead to complication.

To put it bluntly, not many bespoke tailors are prepared or equipped to take on that challenge and I know of cases where female prospective clients were turned away, or, in the worst possible case, left profoundly disappointed with the result of their commission.

The Societal Challenge: Style vs Fashion

Women tend to replace their wardrobe more frequently than men, being more likely to follow the latest fashion trends, arguably because they still feel under more pressure to conform than men do. But following is not leading and the endless parade of ‘must-haves’ that fashion brands conjure up with relentless regularity means that women often don’t have the confidence to develop their own style.

Few women feel self-assured enough to truly invest in themselves, in goods they love because they underline their very own personality. When it comes to clothing, we adhere to what is generally accepted as the latest dress code but not with an understanding of building a wardrobe which affords us lasting enjoyment and value.

Being Ourselves

The truth is that nobody ‘must have’ clothing just because it has been declared the latest and most desirable by the marketing hype of the fashion world. On the contrary, I think most of us discover, sooner or later, that the most liberating thing is to be our own person, to stop trying to fit in and please the world around us.

Only when a customer knows pretty well what she is looking for in terms of style should she challenge a tailor who deserves the label ‘bespoke’ with her commission. Tailored exactly to her specification and figure, her bespoke coat or suit will give her that exhilarating certainty of being at home in her own skin. She should use that to her advantage: there is hardly a look more sexy than that of confidence.

Making Tails for Pavarotti

What do you do when one of the greatest tenors of all time walks through your door? It was the mid 1990s, I had qualified at the workshop of bespoke tailor Tom Reimer in Hamburg a few years earlier, but I was far from being prepared for the late, great Luciano Pavarotti to casually walk in, asking to be measured for a suit. Awestruck, I was hoping and not hoping in equal measures I would be the one making whatever outfit he had in mind.

As it turned out, and without having had a say myself, it was decided I would make a tailcoat -in white silk, no less- for the great man (which he was in more than one sense). I was terrified – what if anything went wrong?

A few days into the daunting task, a fitting was scheduled and our famous client came back to try his new suit for the first time. I didn’t expect to be involved as this was a job for the most senior master tailor only: direct contact with the client was his domain. The tailor working on the piece would be briefed when the client had left and apply the changes to the garment based on these instructions.

But, alas, not this time. Perhaps not ultimately surprising, considering he was the son of a baker and a factory worker, the great performer asked to be introduced to the people who actually made his suit. He came downstairs to the workshop and familiarised himself with materials, tools and techniques. Conversation was via a mix of spoken and sign language, but there was not an awkward moment. It was clear that the man was genuinely interested in the craft – and in the people who delivered it.

Not acting on his name but showing true appreciation for work that, in effect, was just as intricate and reliant on years of practice as his own, he had brought on a disarming sense of down-to-earthness, allowing us to refer to each other as equals in craft. When he had finally left I was compelled to make this the best suit the man had ever worn. What spurred me on was not his fame or his testimonial’s importance for the business, but to know that he would scrutinise the work done for him as a fellow craftsman, the fiercest possible critic out there.

Doing Things Well Takes Time

As a bespoke tailor, I make garments by hand, the old-fashioned way. These days I am often asked “what is the point of handcraft when pretty much everything can be produced using industrial, efficient methods with the same result?”

Really? Think about this: when people are asked to name their favourite things or essentials, as shown by the wonderful With Love Project, they rarely choose objects that have been produced on a mass scale. They favour things that have been manufactured in ways that aren’t geared up to maximum efficiency, often made from natural materials. Let’s say this again: people feel drawn to things that have been ‘made’, rather than ‘produced’ – I call them ‘real things’.

But why this attachment to objects that seem to stem from a past era of ‘making’? In our modern world, which is driven by one overriding objective – to save time – this seems paradoxical. But here’s the thing: handcraft is NOT about saving time, it is about SPENDING time, in a purposeful way.

If done well, both craftsperson and customer will enjoy the generosity of time invested in an object. A maker who is passionate about their craft does not notice the hours passing by; they will immerse themselves in every moment of their creating something spectacular. The customer, on the other hand, finds enjoyment in the knowledge of having acquired a unique object, crafted without time constraints and coming with a personal history attached. Efficiency does not come into this relationship; in fact, it would prohibit both of these notions.

Is to be able to throw efficiency overboard true luxury? I believe so but the term takes on a more essential meaning than its classic definition as a scarce good only a fortunate few can afford: leaving the need for efficiency behind allows all of us to become grounded again in a world of breathtaking but often incomprehensible and all-encompassing change. The ‘real things’ have a way of bestowing a sense of calm, of reason – a powerful antidote to consumption overload.

Donegal Tweed

Localism

Using the right materials is key to everything I do and, when it comes to fine cloth and rustic tweed, I am fortunate to have the worlds best producers on my door step.

I firmly believe in sourcing materials from manufacturers who are within reach and I am keen to get to know our suppliers personally, so I visit whenever I can; it is important for me to establish a trusting relationship, knowing that they are as passionate about their product as I am.

Not many people know that much of the best fine wool cloth available to the global market today is being developed, woven and finished in the long established woollen mills of West Yorkshire, only an easy drive away from my workshop in the foothills of the Peak District. Whenever I can, I source my fine worsteds, frescoes or flannels from the knowledgable cloth merchants who work closely with the mills. 

I source Harris Tweed directly from weaver Donald John MacKay, who was appointed MBE for services to the industry after he called weavers throughout the Outer Hebrides into action when he received an unexpected phone call from sportswear giant Nike, who requested 10,000 metres of tweed for the production of a sneaker. According to an ancient law, Harris Tweed must be produced in the weavers home, on hand-powered looms. Donalds loom shed is located in Luskentyre Bay on the Isle of Harris, with an unrivalled view onto one of the worlds most stunning beaches, which could easily be mistaken for a Caribbean one (when the sun is out, anyway).

Macclesfield Silk has, for more than 100 years, been the material of choice for the finest ties, pocket squares and handkerchiefs. Today, two mills in town still weave, print and very successfully trade with the famous cloth. Whenever suitable and desired, I use this beautiful and durable fabric to line our handmade jackets and coats.

I am proud and grateful to be able to combine these true British heritage materials in one-of-a-kind, entirely bespoke garments for my customers.

Women in Suits

For a long time, women have shied away from claiming what seems to come more naturally to men: having fine clothing made for them. To this day, only 10% of the UK bespoke market is accounted for by women. Why?

Is it the ‘fashion’ versus ‘style’ conundrum? The common understanding is that women like to change their wardrobe more often than men, being more likely to go with the latest trends. I’m not so sure this is entirely true. There comes a point in time when a woman knows exactly what she likes in terms of style but might be swayed by the endless parade of ‘must-haves’ fashion designers now conjure up four times a year, and, in the case of the fast fashion labels, pretty much on a weekly basis. The truth is that nobody ‘must have’ clothing just because it has been declared the latest and most desirable by the marketing hype of the fashion world.

A truly fitting garment (in both, the literal and proverbial sense) is a coat or suit that has been made to your very own specification. The design you favour, a material you love and a fit tailored to your shape will give you that unique feeling of being at home in your own skin. Shed the corset of standard sizing whilst you’re at it.

A true wool or cashmere cloth will last a lifetime. If you go for a timeless cut, you will be able to combine your suit in an unlimited variety of ways – use that to your advantage. There is hardly any look more sexy and empowering than the combination of a sharp, masculine cut and the soft, curvaceous lines of the female shape.

Image credit: Cate Blanchett and Emily Blunt by Peter Lindbergh