Hand-held heritage

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Yorkshire brand Umpie is making a name for itself with its handmade handbags. Stephanie Smith meets the family of founders.

It’s got a certain ring to it – the name Umpleby. Quirky, perhaps, but then, fashion likes quirky, especially when it’s rooted in heritage, and Umpleby is a centuries-old habitational name from the North Yorkshire and Humberside area, recorded in the Domesday Book (beat that, Mulberry).

Joanna Umpleby, Ruth Umpleby and Alison Booth run Umpie Handbags

Joanna Umpleby, Ruth Umpleby and Alison Booth run Umpie Handbags

So sisters Joanna and Ruth Umpleby and their cousin Alison Booth decided to reference their family name when they came to launching their handbag label five years ago.

“The name Umpie was Ruth’s idea,” says Alison. “Umping them about.”

I went to meet Joanna and Alison at Ruth’s beautiful farmhouse near Northallerton, which also happens to be Umpie’s showroom, where rows and rows of bags have taken over the massive table within the rather grand dining room.

These are beautiful bags, highly original and individual, all sizes and shapes, but what strikes most is the quality and singularity of the fabrics and the sturdy simplicity of the designs. They range from mini wool wrist bags (£25, matching the £59 ponchos – did I mention Umpie also offers the most fabulous and versatile ponchos?), right up to weekender styles and a Gladstone style with frame and leather handles plus magnetic fastening. “Very satisfying,” says Joanna.

Joanna Umpleby, Ruth Umpleby and Alison Booth run Umpie Handbags

Joanna Umpleby, Ruth Umpleby and Alison Booth run Umpie Handbags

On some bags you can choose your handle length – longer and shorter. Many people choose both.

Before launching Umpie, all three women had careers elsewhere, Alison in London as a secretary, Ruth as a teacher including a stint in Dubai, and Joanna as a designer (of which more later) also in London, before moving to Spain for six years with her husband.

Finding themselves back together in Northallerton, Ruth and Alison began to talk about setting up a business, and hit upon making bags, partly because they had lots of fabrics about from their home furnishings, plus some vintage material handed down from their parents.

The two began making basic bags, although it stayed at amateur level until Joanna moved back from Spain. “She said: ‘Well if you’re going to make bags, let’s make them properly, girls’, so with her talent, we learned to make them properly,” Alison says.

Joanna Umpleby, Ruth Umpleby and Alison Booth run Umpie Handbags

Joanna Umpleby, Ruth Umpleby and Alison Booth run Umpie Handbags

An amateur Joanna was not. In fact, before moving to Spain, she had been the design director for the renowned Jane Shilton handbag company for 20 years.

Alison says: “It was still a hobby form in ’09. We dabbled in a few charity one day shows, via friends and coffee mornings, and it developed for there.”

Joanna could see that Ruth and Alison’s bag-making foray had real potential. “To begin with, the bags were very basic,” she says. “But as we progressed we made them a bit more polished.

“It seemed like quite a good idea because the beginnings of it had already started and we found that people really liked them.”

With all three women cracking on and making, the first bags were soft, with jute handles and Velcro fastenings. But people liked the individuality of them, says Alison, with Joanna adding: “And the fact that they were made in Yorkshire.”

They began by using up their home fabrics. “We probably shot ourselves in the foot because we used some very nice fabrics on some very amateur bags,” Alison says cheerily.

As they have expanded, they now source tweeds from Warwick and linen kilims printed in England. “They are British made where possible,” says Joanna, as Alison adds: “But also sometimes you get a fabric and you think, gosh, that’s just what we want. These hunting ones have been really popular.” She points to some beautiful shopper-style bags with a hunting scene print.

“They tend to be upholstery fabrics, because they tend to be stronger and a bit more hard-wearing,” says Joanna. Alison adds: “That’s what’s we’ve learned over the years, getting the right fabric – although you can see some nice summer ones, they’re just not strong enough and don’t perform well.”

There are four basic styles of bag in different sizes, mainly named after ancestors. Joanna says: “Our maternal grandmother was a seamstress and she was called Mabel. There is the Connie, the Nancy, a Hobo and the Annie shopper.” And no, they don’t have an ancestor called Hobo.

The largest and most expensive bags are the weekenders, which all have different linings, with the most expensive coming in at £135. Prices are kept to an affordable level, perhaps a little too affordable at first, they admit. Alison says: “Because we were making them ourselves, you never value what you make yourself, and that’s been a problem. You realise you have to put value into that. We probably pitched low.”

Joanna adds: “We think we’ve got it right now.”

They make around 1,000 bags a year, selling through fairs and their website. Their roles in Umpie have changed too. “We have to play to our strengths,” says Joanna, who makes and is in charge of production and design, while Alison does the book-keeping, plus the shows and marketing with Ruth.

“We do quite a lot of shows,” Alison says. “We find the horse shows have been quite good – Badminton, Bramham and Burleigh.”

Umpie featured on the catwalk at this year’s Great Yorkshire Show and will be taking part in the Christmas fair in early December at Ripley, North Yorkshire.

There are three seamstresses making bags in Northallerton, helping with production, but Umpie is very much a family business. Ruth’s eldest son, Tom Boomsma, a website builder, created the website; Joanna’s husband Glyn Williams is a photographer and takes all the product and model pictures; and Alison’s daughter Victoria, Ruth’s Sara and Ruth’s younger son George are the models, as Umpie also makes some men’s products and bags.

Umpie is going from strength to strength, thanks to great family co-operation and support, affordable prices and most of all truly beautiful, individual, handmade bags.

Alison says: “It’s a difficult market, bags, because you’ve got a lot of imported ones to compete with, but there is market out there where people appreciate something from Yorkshire and the UK.”

Joanna adds: “It’s definitely the Yorkshire bit at the moment – not just British made but Yorkshire made.”

• Umpie bags can be seen and bought at www.umpie.co.uk.