BACK in the 1980s, sheep farming was enough of a money-maker to lure Steve Harvey away from teaching back to the family farm in Orkney, and he invested in a flock of sheep to breed alongside his cattle, confident they would bring him a good return. His flock of 300 Texel crosses thrived in the rugged Orkney landscape and he never had any doubts he’d made the right decision, despite farming not being an occupation for the faint hearted.
“It was a very small family farm and I had to buy my dad out, then I bought two other small neighbouring farms and rented another big one. I didn’t come into it with any illusions but it’s a lifestyle with a point and it’s interesting. At the end of the year you can see those lambs and say, ‘I looked after them’ and it’s good for the soul. The vast majority of people just tap away at a keyboard and when they come home, don’t feel they’ve achieved anything that day. Making money is no compensation. People pretend it is, but it isn’t. This is a proper life.”
For Harvey and his growing family, keeping sheep counted as a significant income throughout the 1980s and 1990s but then the price of wool collapsed around 2000 and all around him, he saw farmers giving up on the industry.
“You were lucky to get £1 a fleece and shearing cost £1 a sheep so there was no profit. Even the meat prices were incredibly low and that triggered a lot of people to abandon ship altogether,” says the 59-year-old.
However, for a sheepfarmer Harvey displays a distinct unwillingness to follow the flock and he stuck with it.
“I’m a great believer that if you see people running in one direction it’s a good idea not to join in. Most trends are only temporary and I had a belief it would get better. It seemed obvious that, with the decimation of flocks in New Zealand and Australia and rising world population, demand would improve and change would come,” he says.
Harvey’s faith was justified and with every single lamb produced in New Zealand being consumed in China, demand for Scottish meat and wool has increased and supermarkets have been forced to improve payment to farmers. For those who have held on to their flocks, things are starting to get better
“Decent prices have maintained for two or three years and while people who stopped probably won’t go back, those that have stuck it out will keep going. Over the last five years the price I get for a lamb has tripled to £70 It’s improved dramatically,” he says.
Someone who knows exactly what Harvey is talking about is John Thorley, OBE, chairman of the Campaign for Wool who this week will be sporting his Borders-made tweed suit in New York and raising the profile of the product. About 70 per cent of British wool goes into the global carpet industry and Thorley is gunning for the American interiors market.
“One of the people we are meeting has 3,000 retail outlets across the States. If we could get part of that market it would use up all the wool we produce, plus that of New Zealand too,” says the former sheep farmer and champion of the industry.
According to Thorley there’s no doubt wool is making a real comeback and he’s keen to promote the Campaign for Wool’s Wool Week, which runs from 15 to 21 October.
“The whole point of Wool Week is to raise awareness and to tell the world that here is a wonderful fibre that is produced naturally, is endlessly renewable, totally sustainable and comes off the back of a sheep that grazes the most difficult areas you can find. Sheep put fertility into the soil, provide meat and fibre, and you can even sell the skin,” he says.
“Wool has been seriously undervalued. We have lived in a throw-away society where it hasn’t mattered but that’s changing and we want quality that will last. I have a suit that was made 30 years ago and it’s just as good today – it’s wonderful,” he says.
To celebrate Wool Week, the Campaign for Wool set up Wool School, a collaboration between retailers and fashion universities to create sweaters that will be available in store as a limited item from 15 October. Shops taking part are Daks, Harvey Nichols, Hackett of London, Harrods, Hobbs, Jigsaw, John Lewis, Lyle & Scott, Marks & Spencer, Paul Smith, Pringle of Scotland, Selfridges and Topshop.
Scottish students are up there among the winners, with Laura-Jayne Nevin, from Edinburgh College of Art, creating a basket-weave jumper for John Lewis, Julia Maclean, of Glasgow School of Art, with a contemporary take on the Argyle classic for Pringle of Scotland and Claire Hunter of Heriot-Watt with stripes for Lyle & Scott.
Not only does the competition give the students exposure for their design talent but it introduces them to the sharp end of the industry and creates an awareness of how hard, commercial decisions are made.
Allan Godfrey, senior knitwear manager at Pringle of Scotland, worked closely with Julia Maclean to develop her design ready for production.
“The Wool School allowed us to work closely with the next generation of knitwear designers. The enormous amount of talented young people out there is always astonishing, and these days they seem to have a better understanding of the business side of the industry too,” he says.
While it’s clear the majority of wool goes into the interiors sector, fashion is a very visible flagship for the industry and provides a chance to showcase its qualities. According to Godfrey, knitwear is very hot right now, with style mavens currently gearing up for a cold snap
“Knitwear seems to be having a real moment,” says Godfrey, “especially on the catwalk, and especially in Britain. The autumn/winter 2012 London Fashion Week runways showcased some amazing knitwear.”
As far as industry leaders like Pringle of Scotland are concerned, the wool industry and knitwear are increasingly viable. “Knitwear is something that everyone owns as its comfort is unparalleled. What is really refreshing is that it is now worn more and more as occasion wear and as outerwear, rather than just as something informal. It plays a really important part in everyone’s wardrobe,” says Godfrey.
Back in Orkney, where jumpers have always played an important part in his wardrobe – ever since the days when his granny spun, carded and knitted them for the family, along with socks, hats and anything else that could be knitted – Steve Harvey acknowledges, “Although the clothing industry is probably not a big enough market to really drive the price of wool, it does have a visible effect”.
Very visible, in fact, as his son Robbie’s partner, Hilary Grant, produces luxury woollen hats, gloves and scarves that are flying off the shelves in independent boutiques and in the Japanese equivalent of John Lewis, Hankyu.
Determined to build sales and break through to a major UK retailer as well as developing her export side, Grant is delighted win a place in Fashion Foundry, a business incubation programme funded and developed by Cultural Enterprise to support “ten of Scotland’s most promising fashion designers”.
While Grant is based on the farm, her colourful, fine designs don’t utilise the wool gamboling outside the window as, like virtually all wool produced in Britain, that goes to the British Wool Marketing Board and is sold globally. Instead, her luxury products use lambswool from Australia.
“I buy in the yarn from spinners in Yorkshire and the manufacturing is based in Borders. Most of the wool produced in the UK is not soft enough for my designs and the aesthetic I work in is quite detailed and not suited to hand knitting. It’s done on machines. But I am very inspired by the tradition and local products on sale here. People spin their own yarn and hand knit, and Fair Isle in particular, with its repeats and patterns, informs what I do.
“It’s nice seeing where wool comes from and the whole process, how the sheep are reared and watching the shearing, seeing all the hard work that goes into it from the farm’s – and sheep’s – point of view,” she says.
An appreciation for the traditions of the country’s woollen industry is a common thread among the new wave of the country’s textile designers and shared by Melrose-based Rosie Sugden, whose cashmere accessories are made in Hawick and Innerleithen and are available in Liberty of London.
“I have watched with disbelief the gradual dismantling of the textile manufacturing capacity in Britain and especially Scotland. We have still, however, got world-class skills in design and there are some niche manufacturing capabilities left both here and indeed in England, which can be increased and built on.
“Our skills in manufacturing high-quality but low-volume products is legendary and now that the service industry, especially banking, is under pressure, we need to attract younger people into the textile/manufacturing industry – of which I am one,” she says.
“Scotland has a rich history in textile manufacturing and worldwide, I think, this ‘niche’ market is associated with high-quality, luxury goods, heritage and craftsmanship.”
Meanwhile in the nation’s high streets the creative talent of our art and fashion school talent is available to buy as the winter sets in and we dig out our woollens.
“When people choose a made-in- Scotland product they are supporting the Scottish knitwear industry and keeping age-old traditions alive,” says Godfrey.
Reflecting on her Wool School win and the prospect of her jumper being sold in John Lewis, 20-year-old Laura-Jayne Nevin, who lives in Fife and is a fourth year fashion student specialising in knitwear, is thrilled.
“It’s lovely to see people want your stuff as a designer but this is great … John Lewis, I can’t believe it. The exposure is amazing. Getting to go to London for the Wool School prize- winning is amazing,” she says.
“I did internships at Johnstons of Elgin and Todd and Duncan and they really want you to learn the craft. You can see the machinery they have and what they can make with it now, everything from silks to chunky. They’re both Scottish companies and I’m very patriotic and love my heritage. I love the idea of bringing knitting up more and seeing it in high fashion. I want to create my own label and base it in Scotland. Why should we have to go to London to get work when Scotland has such a strong tradition?”
Fellow winner Julia Maclean, 23, from Aberdeen, who will see her jumper sold by Pringle of Scotland, also wants to produce her own accessories and potentially develop a brand. She has just completed her Masters degree in fashion and textiles at Glasgow School of Art, specialising in knitwear, and her winning design paid contemporary homage to the Argyle tradition, reinterpreting the iconic Pringle garment with mohair and viscose diamonds on a grey lambswool background.
“I think they chose it because the competition was about promoting wool and its qualities and the shiny viscose and 3D diamonds play to that and highlight the qualities of the lambswool,” she says.
“Knitwear and wool is booming, it’s in fashion and we want to be part of that.” n
The Wool School Scottish winner’s jumpers are available in John Lewis (Laura-Jayne Nevin), £199; from Pringle of Scotland (Julia Maclean), £250; and Lyle & Scott, (Claire Hunter), £100
www.hilarygrant.co.uk; www.rosiesugden.com; www.campaignforwool.org