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Baa Baa Britain: how one brand brought merino wool back to the UK

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Georgina Wilson-Powell

21 October 2016

For those in the know, merino wool mostly comes from Spain or Australia. Used in sweaters merino wool is baby skin soft, desirable and luxurious. However at Cornish clothing brand Finisterre the air miles it flew rubbed them up the wrong way.

“We are obsessed with wool, especially when it’s used in an innovative way. We use it in almost everything, including our jeans but to do it right you have to go back to the supply chain and understand it from a fibre level,” says Debbie Luffman, Product Director at Finisterre.

After becoming obsessed with finding a way to produce merino wool in the UK the brand in 2011 began the Bowmont Project, a small scale annual collection of merino wool jumpers. By luck they discovered a Devon sheep farmer with the only flock of merino sheep in the UK. But finding the sheep was only half the battle.

“We spent the best part of six months in the UK’s wool region, around Halifax, to see if we could produce merino wool here. The answers were mostly no – the machinery didn’t exist, there’s not enough of it, but people were willing to try.

Merino wool lambs for ethical fashion Finisterre's Bowmont Project
“If we approached every product the way we approached this one, we’d have been out of business a long time ago”

Britain has a long history with wool. Our love of wool predates the Romans, the wealth of the medieval ages came from the wool trade and before the Industrial Revolution the UK outpaced Flanders for production. The last few decades and globalisation however saw the industry decimated but it has bounced back. Our heritage and skills remain sought after by fashion houses interested in great quality.

“The wool industry is bigger than people realise, we’re really good at knitwear,” says Luffman. “The amount of socks that come out of this country is amazing. I’ve been to sock factories all over the world and the British ones are the best.”

Finisterre Bowmont Project 11 Pebble Magazine

Finisterre's team are involved in every step of the merino wool production, even driving the fibres to factories.

Despite the resurgence in wool production, merino wool was a different matter for Finisterre. No one had produced it in the UK before, usually it gets sent to Portugal or Turkey for manufacturing.

“It took us two years to make it happen and we’ve been involved in every step" Luffman says. “We couldn’t get anyone to take the fibre to the spinners for the first couple of years, so we literally hired a van and took it ourselves. Being involved at this level though has been so rewarding and we’ve learnt so much.”

The Bowmont Project is the epitome of slow fashion. The 250 strong flock equals enough merino wool to make a limited edition run of sweaters which sell out every year. Growing the flock naturally is the only way to keep the quality of the fibre intact, so any expansion plans mean playing a waiting game of several years.

“The flock grows by about 40 sheep every year. In two years time we’ll have a ton. We’ll save half for knitting and then we’d love to use the rest in a new shirt or jacket, but for now we just have to wait,” Luffman says.

This isn’t a mega issue for a brand like Finisterre, who prefer to get things right, or go back and start again, rather than push out a high number of collections per year.

“There’s no rulebook we follow,” Luffman says. “From a brand point of view we are always very curious about our supply chain and we’re good at making things difficult for ourselves. We ask a lot of questions and look at the entire chain and unravel everything if necessary. If we approached every product the way we approached this one, we’d have been out of business a long time ago.”

So why is wool and merino wool in particular, worth all the time and effort?

“The British climate is so changeable that we need clothes to adapt to our own temperature. Wool does that naturally. It’s thermal regulating, so if you’re hot it will allow your skin to breathe. If you’re cold it will help keep the heat in. Oh and it doesn’t smell so you don’t have to wash it that much” Luffman explains.

“Merino wool is really fine. The fatter the wool fibre the itchier it is. 20-30 microns is what most people wear, merino comes in between 17-21 microns and our wool from the Devon flock is between 16-20. The sheep have to remain pedigree or the fibre would suffer - a rogue sheep would literally set us back 20 years.”

Finisterre Bowmont Project 5 Pebble Magazine
“Wool is thermal regulating, so if you're hot it will allow your skin to breathe. If you're cold it will keep the heat in”

The level of knowledge, expertise and time it has taken to develop the UK based supply chain for the Bowmont Project has highlighted to Luffman that the personal connection to their farmers and suppliers is something they’d like to develop across their other collections.

“We are so much more involved, from talking to the farmer, thinking about animal health and you get all this rich information that’s real, rather than reading a report on the internet,” says Luffman. “We want to use the Bowmont Project as a model, so for any of our wool products we will have visited the farm and have a real link rather than just a certificate.”

From the sheep to the supply chain and back down again, Finisterre certainly aren’t wooly headed when it comes to producing ethical clothing.