Herd: Rebuilding the British wool industry
By Jessica Owens, in the World Textile Information Network, 23rd April 2021
Herd is championing British wool and knitwear and has built a supply chain all within a 150-mile radius in North West England. Jessica Owen speaks to founder Ruth Rands to find out more.
Sheep have grazed and have provided wool in Great Britain for thousands of years and mills have been spinning it since the Bronze Age, but the industry has been in decline since the rise of synthetics and subsequent drop in demand since the 20th century. And even when there is a desire for wool, it’s merino that takes centre stage.
“It’s a real shame, but it doesn’t have to be like this,” says Ruth Rands, founder of Herd.
“The consumer has been drawn into the merino story about it being the best fibre for clothing and that has now become massively commoditised. And the average merino supply chain covers a 17,000-mile journey from New Zealand to China for scouring to Italy where it’s spun to say Turkey or Portugal where it’s knitted.”
So, with a mission to revive and reenergise the traditions of sheep farming for wool in England, Rands launched Herd in October 2020 – a knitwear, wholesale yarn and knitting yarn brand that depends on a 150-mile radius in the North West of the country.
Although she has no background in textiles, Rands calls herself an ‘entrepreneur in sustainability’ and is passionate about nature and its benefits. She owns another business called Atlantic Kitchen that specialises in wild organic seaweed, and her interest in natural fibres emerged after living in California and witnessing its approach to materials such as 100% alpaca or 100% organic cotton and how it’s sourced relatively locally.
“I also became aware of Fibershed – a company that develops regional fibre systems,” she explains. “The idea that we could be growing and making our own clothes in a short radius of where we live is radical in its simplicity and that was so inspiring.
“So, when I came back to the UK, it became obvious that the UK is home to incredible quality fleece that is all within the buyer, scouring and spinning region. At that point, I thought there was a huge opportunity here for a knitting yarn and fashion brand to prove the Fibreshed concept.”
For now, Herd concentrates on wool derived from the Bluefaced Leicester sheep – one of the finest British fleeces that has a micron count of 25. It is native to the North West of England and has a long staple length that suits a worsted spin. Currently, there are no wool flocks in the UK anymore, it has become a by-product of the meat industry and there are also no single flocks of Bluefaced Leicester as it is predominantly kept for crossing with a Swaledale to produce a quality lamb. Therefore, Rands works with a collective of around 75 farmers in the region to acquire 15-200 kg of wool from each farm.
Once the wool has been collected, it is first verified to ensure that it is purebred as just one cross can change the micron count, according to Rands. Next, it is sent to a scouring facility in Bradford where it is washed with organic detergents to draw out the oil, which is then sold on for use in lanolin balms and cosmetics.
The soapy water is recycled while the fleeces are blown through pipes to the carding machines where the fibres are aligned forming ‘slivers’. The waste wool from these processes is then sold to be used to stuff teddy bears and cushions. Lastly, the slivers are combed to align the fibres and then these are sent to the spinner where it is wound onto the cone. The final trip is then to a boutique knitwear factory in Nottingham that specialises in luxury knits, which is where Herd’s garments come together.
“There’s such a rich network of world-class facilities in England, there’s nothing artisan about it,” says Rands. “It’s a great industry and it’s only down the road.
“We also wanted to ensure that whatever happens at the eventual end of these garments’ long and useful life that they will biodegrade beneficially for the soil, which is why we use only natural and organic treatments.”
For this reason, Herd knitwear is undyed with one naturally dyed shade just launched, as the company is working to create natural dyeing at scale. Rands has collaborated with a local natural dyer who has developed dye recipes, and these have been taken to a commercial dyehouse to experiment with, who were ‘initially very sceptical about the project’.
“It’s been trial and error to get the colours right and to translate an artisan process to a commercial dye facility,” explains Rands. “But it’s been incredibly successful – it’s exceeded all of our expectations and the managers of the dyehouse are now encouraging us to try new colours and processes.”
The company currently works with natural mordents that can be found in the kitchen cupboard and it doesn’t work with flowers, berries or food waste as they don’t fully absorb into the fabric and are not lightfast. Instead, the team has been working with madder (pinks), weld (yellows) and woad (blues) and it will be launching four colours in the red-pink spectrum into its wholesale range in September: raspberry, peach, rose and shrimp.
“I feel that the evolution of the natural dye process is one we’ll invest in over the next 10 years to develop a full colour spectrum,” she adds. “Once the dyehouse is confident about it, it will then make it available to whoever wants to transition in this direction.”
The company would also like to transition towards using other types of wool that Britain has to offer. Unlike countries such as New Zealand and South Africa that have adopted a mono-breed approach, the UK is home to around 90 breeds of sheep thanks to its varied topography and climate, which translates to a smorgasbord of wool textures and characteristics.
“We need to celebrate the range of breeds and the variety that we have in the UK,” says Rands.
“There are so many other wools ideal for scarves or blankets or jumpers. We need to focus on the different types of wool and their individual qualities and champion those rather than chasing the fine micron count as the only determinator of quality in wool.”
That’s why one of Herd’s promises is to maintain the price of fleeces every year so farmers are incentivised to protect the pedigree of their wool, as currently they don’t view it as having any worth. But the real way to make a change is for brands to start getting on board with British wool. The only way consumers will start valuing this fibre as they do from elsewhere is through experience of it and brands can help make that happen by increasing accessibility to it through their products. That said, Herd is already receiving a lot of interest now, especially from British brands.
“Herd has entered into an industry that needs answers and solutions to the insane inefficiencies of the existing fashion supply chain,” says Rands.
“That’s why the time for Herd is now.”