A close-knit Dales community

It was the 1970s when a group of Dales villagers decided to revive a forgotten art. As Swaledale Woollens celebrates its 40th anniversary, Sebastian Oake meets its group of dedicated knitters. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.

Gillian  Whitehead at Swaledale Woollens in Muker, Swaledale.
Gillian Whitehead at Swaledale Woollens in Muker, Swaledale.

It is thought to be one of Prince Charles’s favourite outfitters, but Swaledale Woollens remains unpretentious and decidedly Yorkshire. Here wool from the armies of sheep that roam the Dales is turned into a range of garments by a dedicated team of hand-knitters. It is a business that has won success through hard graft and respect for tradition.

Next week Swaledale Woollens in Muker celebrates 40 years of producing jumpers, cardigans, scarves, hats and gloves in the time-honoured way to timeless designs. However, there has been change in the air. After 27 years at the heart of the business, owner Kathleen Hird retired last month.

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“I first started working for Swaledale Woollens as a shop assistant in 1987,” says the farmer’s wife, who moved to Swaledale from Hartlepool when she was 10. “I liked it from the very first day but at that time I never dreamed I’d come to own the place.”

Gillian Whitehead at Swaledale Woollens in Muker, Swaledale.

The tradition of hand-knitting in Swaledale goes back hundreds of years to the time when Queen Elizabeth I set a new trend by wearing knitted stockings. In the 19th-century even the men used to knit, often on their way to the lead mines.

However, the work disappeared almost as quickly as it had arrived. The closure of the mines at the end of the century coincided with a change in fashions and the art of hand-knitting soon began to look a little antiquated.

However, all things come in cycles and fast forward to the early 1970s and a meeting which was held in Muker’s sole pub, the Farmers’ Arms, to discuss how to create much needed employment in the dale. It was decided that ladies could knit in their own homes, capitalising on the dominant local resource, sheep. Driving the idea forward were retired bank manager David Morris and his wife Grizel.

“David had some garments knitted and hung them outside on a wall. Walkers passing through bought them and things escalated from there,” explains Kathleen. “David’s vision was to promote Swaledale wool and he worked hard.” But then in 2001 foot and mouth came to the countryside and visitors to Muker were scarce. Already in his 80s, David decided to retire. Kathleen bought the business the following year.

Now as she herself bows out, Kathleen reflects on her time. “I’ve really enjoyed selling garments that are unique and have a story behind them,” she says. “The thing I have liked most is meeting the customers. We have had visitors to the shop from all over the country, as well as Germany, France, the Netherlands, Norway, America and even Australia. They have all been lovely and so pleased to see something different.

“Prince Charles has been here several times and in 2004 he came for a formal visit. The school children turned out in force and Muker Silver Band played. He looked round the shop and we presented him with a jumper. He bought some gloves and ordered some more later. We’ve seen him wearing them on Countryfile. We also saw Camilla wearing a pair of his gloves but they looked a bit big for her, so we sent her a pair for herself.”

Prince Charles clearly thinks highly of the traditional skills so much in evidence at Swaledale Woollens. In writing to Kathleen, he said: “My delight in hearing of your success in this technologically zealous age knows no bounds.”

Other visitors have included local MP William Hague, Yorkshire-born soprano Lesley Garrett, celebrity chef Aldo Zilli and the cast of BBC TV’s All Creatures Great and Small, which was often filmed around Muker.

All have no doubt been impressed by the local provenance of the business.

Today the 35 knitters at Swaledale Woollens use wool mainly from Swaledale sheep grazing the Dales fells, with some wool coming from the Wensleydale and Welsh Hill breeds for additional colour and texture. The wool is washed and carded in Bradford before being spun both there and in Scotland. If it needs to be dyed, that is done in Liversedge. Finally, it is delivered to the homes of the knitters who then get to work.

“I’ve got to know all the knitters well over the years,” says Kathleen. “They all have a story to tell.” And they haven’t all been women – Kathleen reveals there have been one or two men over the years, something of a nod to the history of hand-knitting in the area.

During her time in charge, Kathleen’s main aims have been to keep prices reasonable and standards high.

“We get many people in the shop who say they wish they could knit to our standard,” she says before also explaining she has had to be tactful to ensure the knitting has remained high quality. “A lot of people think they can knit,” she alludes. “I have had to be very diplomatic...”

Despite leaving, Kathleen doesn’t see it as the end of an era for the business.

She is passing the baton on to someone who has already worked in the shop at Muker for ten years – Gillian Whitehead and her husband Ken, who farm at nearby Thwaite. “I am very relieved the business is going to Gillian and Ken,” says Kathleen. “I am sure they will carry things on extremely well.”

After a decade in the business, Gillian jokes that she “half knows” what she is doing.

“When Kathleen mentioned retiring, I thought if someone buys the business and they don’t want any shop staff, them I’m out of a job. The sensible thing to do seemed to be to buy it myself”

Husband Ken adds: “Opportunities like this don’t come along often. We have an old saying that if you wait twice, it’ll be twice the price.”

The new owners hope to develop Internet sales further but otherwise have no radical changes in mind. There has been the 40th anniversary to think about, however. The daughter of David and Grizel Morris, Jane, is helping them mark the occasion but the real celebrations will take place at the beginning of July when the Tour de France cyclists come through the village. A music and arts festival called King of the Mountains is planned for that weekend with an exhibition by Swaledale Woollens taking place in the village hall.

Ken says: “I’m looking forward to the Tour de France. A lot of people will be coming to the village and a lot of people are going to see us. It will be good advertising.”

Whether any of the Tour de France participants decide to slow down and look round the shop at Muker remains to be seen. Equally uncertain is how the weather might affect turnout to watch the race.

But if the Yorkshire summer lives up to its reputation, Swaledale Woollens jumpers, cardigans, hats, scarves and gloves could well be flying out the door over the race weekend.

• For details of Swaledale Woollens and online ordering, visit www.swaledalewoollens.co.uk