Out of necessity, Shepherdess was born. So says Alison O’Neill, a hill farmer, walker, raconteur and fashion designer, whose brand was conceived as a way of using the fleece from her sheep, making it into something beautiful and wearable.
At her farm in the Howgill Fells, on the border of the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District, Alison hand-rears her flock of 200 Swaledale, Rough Fell and Herdwicks, with her sheepdogs, Shadow, Mac and Drifter. She is from generations of hill farming stock (her maiden name is Winn), and returned from her travels nearly 20 years ago to fulfil her dream of running a sheep farm. She says: “I always struggled to make hill farming pay, as we all do and, like most farmers and shepherds, I was sending the wool off to the Wool Marketing Board and not getting much back for it.”
Five years ago a friend suggested Alison turn her own wool into the sort of tweed she loved to wear. She had enjoyed design at school, so decided to keep her current wool clip of 180 fleeces and sought out the help and expertise of Paul Crookes at Halifax Spinning in Goole. “Everybody was telling me, ‘it will be rough stuff, nobody will be interested and nobody will wear it’,” she says. But Paul managed to turn it into yarn and sent her on to Robert Gledhill of Almondbury Weaving in Huddersfield so it could be woven into cloth. “Then it’s the exciting bit for me, as the cloth comes back to Howgill and I see my designs of jackets, coats and bags come to life,” Alison says.
The inspiration for her first design came from a tweed jacket her grandfather had bought for her when she was 16. “I just cut out patterns from that,” she says. “I wanted a smart jacket to go to market or go walking in, and I called it The Shepherdess. I’m not a seamstress as such, but grandma taught us to cook, sew, iron and clean.”
Next she made a skirt and then a waistcoat. “I wanted to have a little suit that I could either go to a show to show my sheep in, smarten up and go for a night out in it, or go up the side of a fell in on a nice day.”
Before she knew it, Alison was being asked to make clothes for others, which she did on her kitchen table. Now, using patterns made in Leeds, all Shepherdess clothes are made by seamstresses in the Dales and in Cumbria. It is, she admits, an expensive process. “Some ladies might buy just one jacket and it has to last them a lifetime,” she says.
The range, called Wool is my Bread, includes The Shepherdess jacket, The Mountain Shepherd coat and The Yorkshire Lass coat. There are bags and also belts, made by her local saddler, Todds in Sedbergh, stamped with the Shepherdess logo. The tweed itself costs between £95-£155 a metre to produce, but then it can be traced back to the farm it came from (Alison now buys wool from neighbouring sheep farmers, too).
There’s a long coat coming for autumn, called The Dales Woman, costing £1,000 – the sort of coat her grandmother would have worn to autumn weddings, Christmas events and sheep shows, she says.
“Everything has been inspired by working on the land. I wanted to make my tweeds different, to be the kind of tweed that would last forever, that looked like it had come off a Swaledale’s back.”
She uses organic dyes to match the colours of her landscape. “I went up the hills and I looked at the limestone walls and the colours of the Swaledale’s faces, that lovely dark, kind of black,” she says. Alison also uses Harris tweeds, which have brighter colours, and goes to the Hebrides four times a year.
Shepherdess is for all ages, she says. Her oldest client is 95 and Alison’s daughter Scarlett, 19, also wears pieces.
When she shows her brand at the Great Yorkshire Show, every piece will be made entirely in Yorkshire. “I’m hoping the minute they come out on the catwalk, you can hear skylarks, imagine sheep,” she says. “I’m aiming always for quality not quantity. This is slow fashion. The wool-to-weave journey alone takes one year to complete.”
Future plans include finding a stockist in Harrogate, developing the range and working with different wools, but she won’t be turning full-time designer.
“I’m definitely a hill farmer who designs, and I’m always a shepherdess,” she says. “There was a time when all the farms in the valley were like mine, but times have changed. Farming on this scale simply doesn’t turn a profit and most years it’s been a struggle to makes ends meet. However, there are other riches and the farm and fashion business have given far more than it has taken from me.”
This year’s Great Yorkshire Show also sees one of the most renowned names in countrywear, Barbour, take to the Kuoni catwalk. Founded in 1894 in South Shields, Barbour is still a family-owned brand with three Royal Warrants.
And new to the GYS catwalk will be Huff Equestrian, created by Melanie Hunter Yell and Zoe Kiff, who share passion for horses and wanted to create a range of equestrian wear with a stylish leisure-wear twist. Mel says: “The Huff philosophy is to create sportswear that is functional but can also be worn off the horse.”
For details of the Shepherdess range, email: [email protected] or visit www.shepherdess.co.uk. Barbour is at Barbour.com and Huff is at Huffequestrian.co.uk.
The 160th Great Yorkshire Show will be on July 10-12 at the Great Yorkshire Showground in Harrogate and the Kuoni Catwalk will take place each day at 11am, 12.30pm, 2.30pm and 4pm. Tickets at www.greatyorkshire.show.co.uk/ticket-information
Twitter @greatyorkshow #KuoniCatwalk #GYSfashion
Huff Equestrian: https://www.huffequestrian.co.uk/