You may recall the remarkable story of Macclesfield tailor Brita Hirsch whose ambition it was to bring to the market, for the first time, a Merino cloth with an entirely British production chain.
Hirsch successfully crowdfunded ‘The Great Northern Cloth’ with a Kickstarter campaign in which hundreds of backers supported her project.
The ambitious initiative even entailed rearing a new breed of sheep to produce the product’s raw material.
Brita comments: “Together we showed that a 100% locally manufactured, sustainable product can stand its ground in the market.
“Although the project was really only the result of a stubborn refusal to accept the status quo on my part, and not initially intended to result in a commercial product, carrying on was an easy decision to take.
“So we bought the new clip and did it all again.”
The most popular ‘reward’ item selected by backers of the crowdfunding campaign was the Napier Blue Scarf; produced with the much-coveted 100% British Merino wool.
The latest production run sees three additional colours making their debuts, as well as the introduction of a mechanical finishing treatment to make the scarves feel even smoother to the touch.
“When I went across West Yorkshire to take delivery,” explained Brita, “it was hardly surprising to run into sheep on my way; they graze the gentle hillsides wherever you look.
“But what about the former textile powerhouses, the mills, omnipresent in this landscape wherever the open country condenses into small towns?”
This is where the link seems to have been broken, according to Brita.
The woollen mills, once the beating heart of the UK textile industry, are no longer operating (though there are a few notable exceptions).
The obvious question is: ‘why?’
After all, the raw material required for the world-renowned, fine Yorkshire cloth grows on the backs of thousands of sheep, right there!
Brita explains: “The answer can be found in the country’s colonial past: although we have more than 30 million sheep in Britain, we are not using their wool to make one of our most iconic products.
“For over two hundred years, the Merino breed, producer of the finest wool on Earth and native to Europe, has been farmed at the far end of the globe: in Australia and New Zealand.”
She continued: “Vast pastures and mild climes meant it made economic sense to outsource the supply.
“Sustainability was not a concern when Captain James Cook discovered the Antipodes for British interests.”
Enhanced further by groundbreaking inventions in textile machinery during the Industrial Revolution in the North, the big mills were at full capacity.
Weaving is a skill that can’t easily be transferred to another country – it takes years to acquire and is often passed down from generation to generation.
The downturn for the UK textile industry fully manifested itself with the dawn of globalisation, when related processes like scouring and carding, spinning and dyeing (skills that are easier to pass on) started being outsourced to countries with lower labour costs.
These processes now take place wherever on the globe it is cheapest – also allowing manufacturing companies to legally circumvent environmental or labour protections.
However, the skills and provenance of production are returning to the process, just as Brita’s enthusiasm has endured.
“Together we have shown it made sense to pause and rethink,” she explained.
“We now know it makes sense, rather than to ship raw material around the globe, to grow it ourselves instead – and pay everyone involved in the process a fair price.”
Growing wool for textile production generates a good return for the duration of the life cycle of the sheep (up to 10 years).
Young farmers are now beginning to look into keeping sheep for a sustainable income as a result of Brita’s initial project – and Brita is right when she says this is something everyone involved can feel very proud of that.
If you, or someone you know, would like to own a piece of textile history, the good news is that the 2018 edition has now arrived in the online shop.
You can also find them at the festive Treacle Market on 23rd December, where you can snap one up just in time for Christmas!