The inside story on the shirt it took a town to make

Natalie Stapleton at McNair. Picture: With Love Project
Natalie Stapleton at McNair. Picture: With Love Project
  • They are made from wool using old-fashioned techniques, but could a historic Yorkshire mill be about to spark a natural revolution in outdoorwear? Sarah Freeman reports.
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Archimedes famously had his Eureka moment in the bath. Richard Hamshire has his on a French ski slope looking at an old pair of gloves.

“Like most people who enjoy winter sports, over the years I’d spent a lot of money on a lot of different kit, but particularly when it came to the clothing I’d never been completely satisfied,” says Richard, who had already established a successful marketing business. “A succession of new materials came with various different claims from being the most durable to being the most waterproof, but after a while they always tore or wore out and I always took with me an old pair of Dachstein gloves just in case.”

Made from felted wool they didn’t make much of a fashion statement, but they did do the job and as Richard sat enjoying some apres ski with his friend, the snowboard coach Neil McNair, the pair began to wonder whether there might just be a new market in old materials.

“Natural fibres had fallen out of favour,” says Richard, who is still the proud owner of those Dachstein gloves. “Also I did wonder why all ski and snowboard gear seemed to be made in lurid colours. I don’t know that many people who suit lime green. I was sure that we could make something which was both practical and which looked beautiful.”

Fast forward four years and Richard is sat on the third floor of an historic Yorkshire mill on Slaithwaite’s canal side. In the background is the gentle hum of sewing machines as the finishing touches are put not to gloves, but to another batch of McNair shirts. It turns out that Richard’s hunch proved right, but admits that while he had the idea and the brand bears the name of McNair, it was Natalie Stapleton who turned it into a reality.

“I have a background working with technical fabrics and, like Richard, I’d long thought that we were somehow missing the trick when it came to natural fibres,” says Natalie. “Speak to gamekeepers, farmers, in fact anyone who works in the countryside and they will tell you wool is the best material to wear when you’re outdoors.

“It keeps you warm, it’s robust, it’s pretty waterproof and on top of all that it allows the skin to breathe – it’s a natural odour repellent. In fact it pretty much does everything that we 
have been trying to get man-made fibres to do for years.”

Natalie spent a year developing both the fabric, which is now used to make every McNair shirt, and the manufacturing process which would allow them to make the best of local expertise.

“We chose Slaithwaite because we knew that this was still a hub for textiles and we wanted to do as much as we could within the smallest possible radius,” she says. “I knew that the raw materials for so many garments began life in one country, were manufactured in another and then shipped elsewhere to be sold. As soon as that happens you inevitably relinquish control on the quality. That’s not what we wanted. We wanted a product where we could oversee every stitch and which we could hand on heart say it had been Made in Yorkshire.”

WT Johnson, one of the world’s leading wool finishing companies based just down the road in Huddersfield, played a key role in developing the final material which is woven from merino wool.

“We started out looking at a knitted fabric, but it wasn’t dense enough and besides it didn’t seem to be a natural fit,” adds Natalie. “West Yorkshire doesn’t have a history of knitting, but it does have a history of weaving and the material we have now is both durable and beautifully soft. However, we knew that if we were going to be successful we couldn’t just have a great material, it had to be matched by great design.

“Quite early on I remember saying to Richard, ‘Ok show me the range’ and he pointed to one design in charcoal and said, ‘This is it’.”

“I’m a bloke,” adds Richard by way of explanation. “I thought one shirt would do.”

While McNair still adheres to the adage that small is beautiful, its men’s shirts also include a moleskin and corduroy version and its women’s range comes in a variety of colours including Slaithwaite blue which they uncovered while renovating the mill building.

“It turned out that a lot of the walls of the mill buildings round here were painted in that colour,” says Richard. “I think at some point someone must have got a job lot of blue paint and everyone ended up having a bit.”

It takes 40 different pieces of material to make a McNair shirt and the painstaking manufacturing process – each one takes at least a day and half to make – is reflected in the price tag. The shirts start from £235 (there is also a made-to-measure service) and having had various outdoors types test them in harsh environments they push that old adage that you get what you pay for.

“These are shirts which will last,” says Richard, pointing out the buttons which are effectively fused onto the shirt so they won’t fall off. “We like to think we have thought of everything, we’ve even got a little inset of material to present snow going up your arm if you do happen to be a border. A McNair shirt is an investment and not just in a garment, it’s an investment in a Great British tradition.”

While McNair has brought some old fashioned manufacturing processes back to Slaithwaite’s canal side they know that there is still one link in the chain which isn’t wholly British. Or at least not yet.

“At the moment the merino wool we use is from Australian sheep,” says Natalie.“There are only a couple of significant size flocks over here and when we were starting out we had to look abroad. However, that’s all about to change. We are just going through the paperwork, but our plan is to have our own 150-strong flock.

“Merino sheep are quite difficult to keep in that they like to feed on a certain variety of grass and they thrive in a mild climate, but a client of ours, who is based in Wiltshire, is really on board with the idea. Hopefully come spring time we will have our very own McNair flock and we are hoping some of our customers will want to sponsor their very own sheep.”

McNair shirts have already been worn by the likes of the GB Olympic snowboard silver medallist Jenny Jones and just before Christmas the RAF snowboard team has also chose them for their official team outfits.

“It’s just really taken off. It’s still very early days, but the demand seems to be there and the goodwill from customers is amazing,” says Natalie. “It’s hard to believe that four years ago McNair was just an idea and it has taken the hard work, expertise and sheer good will of so many people to turn it into a reality. As we always say, it takes a town to make these shirts.”

• As part of the biannual Slaithwaite Moonraking Festival, McNair will be opening the doors of Upper Mill on February 25 from 1-6pm. There will be food, drinks and a view of the evening lantern procession.