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Can Lily Cole Spark a Revival of Rare Breed Sheep Farming?

On Wednesday 24th February 2010, supermodel Lily Cole hosted a party at the Brompton Club in Kensington to launch the first womenswear pieces from her collaborative ethical fashion label, The North Circular, which uses British sourced wool from rare breed sheep. The launch marked a step-change  in the momentum behind ethical fashion which has been fostered by schemes such as Estethica – a mentoring and exhibition scheme supported by Monsoon and the British Fashion Council.

Many of the labels under the aegis of Estethica focus on reducing the impact of manufacture on the environment by utilising locally sourced materials such as Scottish lace and British wool. Given the pressures faced by commercial sheep farmers in a global marketplace, could a touch of Hollywood glamour right the balance in favour of sustainable domestic wool production?

In attendance at the launch party were a coterie of models from Storm Model Agency to which Lily Cole is signed. Leonardo di Caprio may even have been spotted at the discreet nightclub – his girlfriend Bar Refaeli is signed to the very same agency.

Storm Models Laura Keohane & Daniella Bailey, both 18, at The North Circular Launch Party

The party was held to celebrate The North Circular’s expansion into Ready to Wear pieces for Autumn Winter 2010. Cosy mini-dresses, fingerless gloves and a cream shrug add to an already extensive collection of accessories:

‘Sea Cables’ is inspired by the rich patterns of the British seafaring community and the Masonic symbols that go unnoticed underfoot on London’s ancient cobblestones…

Elaine from Ireland is the artisan behind the shoulder shrug, designed with her intricate signature cable knit and ladder detail. Elaine will be the only knitter who will make this design…

The North Circular uses the knitting experience of mothers and grandmothers around the country to execute the knitwear designs of Central Saint Martins graduate, Alice Ashby. Modelling the clothes this season is Katherine Poulton, model and co-designer at The North Circular.

Super Soft Dress with Cable Detail in Cashmere £450 - North Circular Ready to Wear AW 2010
Shoulder Shrug made with Wensleydale Wool £200 - North Circular Ready to Wear AW 2010
Hook Cardigan made with Bluefaced Recycled Wool £350 - The North Circular RTW AW10
Diamond Scarf made with Wensleydale and Bluefaced Recycled Wool £150 - The North Circular RTW AW10

Isobel Davies supplies the wool for the ethical brand from her farm of rare breed Wensleydale sheep as well as a host of other affiliated flocks around the UK.

Isobel Davies with a Wensleydale Sheep

The Global Herald interviewed Isobel Davies to find out more about using locally sourced wool for high-end fashion pieces:

Where are you originally from?
I was born in Retford in Nottinghamshire and my family moved to Yorkshire when I was 10. I left as soon as I could though at 16 to go and live in France before ending up in London.

How did you meet the girls from North Circular?
It was through a mutual friend that I met Katherine and Lily. Katherine had known of me because she had been a customer of my organic food business in London – then Katherine met Alice in New York.

When and how did you decide to begin ethical farming?
As just mentioned, I have an organic food business which I started in London back in 1994 – the first organic box scheme. I had become aware of the destruction that pesticides and industrial farming were having on our countryside and on our wildlife and the wider implications for the planet.

How did you get started – did the desire to keep sheep come before or after the business?
I am a passionate animal lover but I never set out to keep sheep. During my work with organic farmers, I heard tales of discontentment about wool. By law, in Britain, all farmers have to send their entire wool clip to the British Wool Marketing Board and this Board auctions off the wool to a few registered merchants. For many years the wool price has been so low that it hasn’t even been covering the cost of shearing so farmers have been burning it and burying it. It is classed as a waste product. On hearing this, I decided I wanted to help revive the wool industry in this country and that I would start a label using British wool. I immediately ran into moral problems with myself – as a longstanding vegetarian – I could not face using wool from animals that were being slaughtered for meat. Lambswool for example, is generally sheared from the dead carcass of the lamb. That is why I decided to rescue my own flock. I didn’t intend to rescue as many as 600 but once you start you can’t stop – you just can’t let these beautiful, sentient creatures be slaughtered when they are presented to you.

How did you learn how to keep the sheep and other animals?
I took advice from a vet. It’s quite straightforward – they need food, shelter, clean water and medical care as and when required. I’ve always kept animals as pets – they are no different, or from us. I have a great shepherd Ernest who devotes himself to their care.

How does life on the farm in Yorkshire compare to your days in London?
The countryside and fresh air is wonderful – the stunning landscapes nurture the soul – though I do spend a lot of time in the office running the businesses. However, I do miss the dynamism of London life – the busy street markets, the arts, culture and being in a cosmopolitan city. All my friends are still in London and it can sometimes feel like God’s Waiting Room here. I’d miss this landscape too much if I moved back though.

Where do you see your business going from here?
Taking the messages of putting animal welfare at the core of fashion and using local skills and industries and pushing that into the mainstream where it can have impact.

How did you find the mill which you use – tell us more about them?
It was difficult finding the mills. The process is – we shear the sheep in July, the fleeces are then sent to be scoured ( washed ), then to be combed, then to be spun into yarn, then to the dyer then back to us to be sent with patterns to the knitters. I discovered that the whole textile industry was on its knees here. The combination of us (Britain, I mean) shipping our manufacture to Asia and the demise of wool in favour of synthetics has been dealing a terrible blow to our industries and the communities which depend on them. There was no support whatsoever. The issue was nowhere in the media so I was shocked to discover it when I started my research. Once a mill closes, the machinery is scrapped and the skills are lost and both are hard to resurrect. Mills close by the day – our worsted spinner closed down as did our dyer as did our weaver in just 18 months. I can count on one hand the mills left standing.

Tell us about the North Circular knitters – are there more up and coming talents or is it purely the grannies?
There are many grannies but knitting is having a renaissance and lots of younger people are learning to knit. It says a lot about what is happening in the world – it is a movement against fast fashion and about valuing things again. A handknitted garment – the love and toil which goes into it –  will not readily find itself in landfill.

Can you see British wool farming ever returning to industrial levels?
I can but not for a good century or more when the world has run out of the oil to make our synthetics and heat our homes. We will remember its value and why the whole British economy was founded on it.

How do the farmers you take sheep from view the enterprise?
I think they have mixed feelings – they like how we promote British wool, rare breeds and the textile industry but I am very critical of the whole concept of breeding for showing and the sending to slaughter of the male lambs – and the females who don’t have the desired physical characteristics of the breed or ones who have outlived their usefulness. I find it despicable which isn’t to say I don’t get on with them. They know how I feel.

Demand for one-off pieces and handmade designs is increasing and The North Circular looks set to ride the wave of conscience-led fashion which is growing in the UK. Interest in rare breeds is also blossoming with examples of farmers such as BBC Countryfile’s Adam Henson, who has just finished presenting “Lambing Live” on BBC2 and who took the time to speak to The Global Herald about rare breeds:

Rare breeds are important for preserving our heritage – the Cotswald was brought by the Romans, and the Hebridian and Manx were brought over by the Vikings. Rare breeds provide a living gene pool, allowing us to draw upon the attributes of different breeds. Herdwicks are the only breed which can survive on the Lakeland hills and North Ronaldsays, which live in the Orkneys, are small primitive sheep which eat seaweed.

I think it’s absolutely fantastic that high-end fashion houses are reviving the use of rare breed British wool. It’s natural, it’s sustainable, it’s hard wearing, it doesn’t come from oil. You can use lanolin from wool to make face creams and natural wool has fire retardant properties. More and more people should be encouraged to wear it.

Mr Henson told The Global Herald that the fashion for white wool could have spelled the end for multi-coloured fleeces and removed the variety within British flocks. “Long, lustrous wool breeds” such as the Wensleydale can be both black or white and they were originally bred for their milk – from which Wensleydale cheese originates. Shetland wool, he says, is reputedly so fine that you can draw it for a wedding ring.

The variety of rare breed wool allows for a variety of uses. The coarse fleece of the Herdwick makes shearing hardly worth the diesel needed to transport wool down from the fells. However, Herdwick fleeces are used for roof insulation and rug making. Some types of wool are even made into wool felt for use in coffins – popular because they are sustainable and rot well.

Rare breed sheep farmers can make their income from selling meat to rare breed butchers, selling sheep for breeding to other enthusiasts and selling wool to local spinners and weavers guilds for a premium. Adam Henson is even negotiating to sell his rare breed wool to Savile Row. He already sells to the Natural Fibre Company in Devon.

The passion of rare breed sheep farmers such as Isobel Davies and Adam Henson is very apparent and as knitting enjoys a revival throughout the UK, glamourised rare breed wool garments such as those promoted by Lily Cole can only help to encourage those who work to preserve the genetic heritage of Britain’s sheep flock.

Sheep Farmed for Wool by Isobel Davies in North Yorkshire

You can buy pieces from the current season’s collection of The North Circular online by visiting http://thenorthcircular.com/catalogue where you can choose from a range of colours and sizes for children and adults.

You can visit Adam Henson’s rare breed farm from 10am – 5pm until 5th September. Cotswold Farm Park, Cotswold Farm Park, Guiting Power, nr Cheltenham,Glos. GL54 5UG. Admission from £4.95, for more details see http://www.cotswoldfarmpark.co.uk/

About Linda Scott

Linda Scott
Linda Scott is Editor in Chief, and a founder of, The Global Herald.

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One comment

  1. Thomas Willoughby and Paul Hunter clipped Isobel’s sheep on Countryfile some years ago…

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