If cashmere is the golden fleece, Ali Orr is a treasure hunter, seeking out the best from across the world and bringing it back to North Yorkshire so thousands can appreciate its beauty, luxury and softness – at a fraction of the usual cost.
“I can’t resist a bargain,” she says. “I can’t drive past a car boot without seeing what there is. I’ve always been a second-hand shopper, long before it was trendy to be.”
Ali is the owner and founder of Nearly New Cashmere, which has a shop in Masham and an online business through which she sells around 12,000 second-hand and reconditioned cashmere pieces a year – jumpers, cardigans, accessories and loungewear for women, men and children.
Ali lives in Wensleydale with her husband, Michael Hollins, who works in the care sector. Always an entrepreneur, in her 20s she ran her own catering business but, for 15 years, she was a stay-at-home mum to her four children.
About seven years ago, she began to buy and sell secondhand clothes on eBay to generate income. She soon noticed that secondhand cashmere was a bestseller and thought this might be the key to her long-term success.
But first she had to find the cashmere – and lots of it. “The first few years were spent establishing a secure supply,” she says. “I had to travel extensively to find it but since I have done that the business has been able to grow.”
All the cashmere jumpers and cardigans are genuinely secondhand, and Ali buys them in batches of 2,000 from the US, Canada and the UK. She also takes cashmere from customers in return for a voucher. “It’s not about what’s in fashion at the moment,” she says. “When chocolate brown wasn’t in fashion, you could still buy a chocolate brown cardigan or V-neck jumper from me. I have everything from 50 or 60 years ago to last year, and I have the odd brand-new ones that have never been worn.”
But it is all about the condition of the cashmere and whether or not it can be made to look as good as new again, she says. This is where the Nearly New magic comes in.
“We put it through a process of reconditioning that involves washing, checking, de-bobbling if it needs it, minor repairs. Occasionally we will change all the buttons, embellish if things have got a mark on or an imperfection. I’ve got local fantastic ladies who are really skilled and who will put stars or hearts on to cover an imperfection, just so that we can use as much of the waste cashmere as possible. “People are flabbergasted by how good they look in the end, because you would not be able to tell they are not new.”
Ali’s team of local expert repairers includes a farmer’s wife in Bedale. “It’s remarkable the people you can find in the community,” she says. “They all work from home. They pick up the cashmere here from our office once a week, take it home and bring it back all ready for sale a week later.”
The selling landscape has changed hugely since the pandemic began. The main market for Nearly New Cashmere used to be at horse trials and shows including Burghley and Badminton, the Country Living fairs and shopping events in London (Ali used to hold several a year in Notting Hill). She opened the shop in Masham in 2019 but that, of course, has been impacted by lockdowns. Online is now the main marketplace, although showcasing the cashmere posed quite a challenge as every piece is unique, so each has to be photographed individually for the website, to be sold just once.
Here again the local community provided the best solution as North Yorkshire women came forward to don the jumpers and cardis and be photographed wearing them for the website.
“It took a while to work out the best way to do it,” Ali says, adding that the models she employs are all of very different sizes, so if the jumper is size 20, a size 20 model wears it on the website. “That helps people see how a jumper fits,” she says, “because we don’t want returns coming back all the time. We are trying to run a sustainable business and, while we want people to be able to return something if it’s not right, we want to minimise the inconvenience to them and to us and on the planet.”
The Nearly New Cashmere location fashion shoots are very much a family affair, with Ali’s children sometimes taking pictures of themselves and friends, as with the images here, taken near Masham.
All pieces are priced around £40 and they are pure cashmere, no blends. The original brand labels tend to stay with the clothes except those Ali has bought from brands which want them removed. Nearly New Cashmere also has a reconditioning service for cashmere bought anywhere and there is also a personal shopping service online. There is a team of five, including Ali, and the cashmere is packaged and sent out to customers in recyclable envelopes.
These are clothes that would otherwise be discarded. “I don’t think we understand the huge amount of clothing that is going into landfill in this country or being dumped in other continents,” she says.
The business has grown quickly, helped by having developed a strong following through the shows and fairs and then via Instagram. “Word gets about if something is good at a good price,” Ali says. “We have had to turn on a sixpence and change the business from a show-based business to an online business in the last few months.
“You have to know what you are doing with cashmere. My customers want the shopping experience. There has to be a sense of luxury and the feeling that you are getting a good product.”
*Cashmere jumpers and cardigans cost from £38 for womens and £44 for mens. Visit NearlyNewCashmere.co.uk. The shop is at 5 Leyburn Road, Masham. The brand welcomes all unwanted cashmere and offers a £10 voucher for items that can be resold in their original form and a £5 voucher for pieces that need to be disassembled to create a different type of garment. Email [email protected]