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
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.
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 world’s 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 weaver’s home, on hand-powered looms. Donald’s loom shed is located in Luskentyre Bay on the Isle of Harris, with an unrivalled view onto one of the world’s 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.
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
Translation of Hirsch in English: