Despite having no farm of her own – indeed no farming background – RBST member Katie Allen has not only found a way to bring rare breed sheep into her life, she has developed a whole new skill set to enable her to create Loopy Ewes, a business based on their fleece. From school, Katie began work in the creative world, becoming a graphic designer and setting up her own business. As a hobby, however, she grew her own vegetables and kept chickens, yearning for more land. To fuel her dream, Katie went on a part-time smallholder course at an agricultural college in Warwickshire.
Her first opportunity to keep her own livestock came when she moved to Cornwall where she had a 20-acre smallholding with holiday accommodation. Rare breeds were a top priority, as she explains: “I’d always wanted to work with rare breeds. Their unique charcteristics, perhaps not always considered suitable for large, commercial farming, were more interesting to me and I felt it was the chance to support something special. The fact that they are hardy was also very important, as I was a newcomer to livestock keeping. I bought two breeds with very different fleeces, which I hoped would offer me opportunities for a diverse product range; Portlands - with their stunning cream fleece that dyes beautifully, and the contrasting chocolate brown of the Castlemilk Moorit.”
Although Katie was passionate about working with the wool from her sheep, she didn’t have any textile based skills: “Until three years ago, I couldn’t sew or knit – basically, I had no textile skills whatsoever, but I knew I really wanted to work with my own British wool. It seemed a devastating waste that to many shepherds fleece wasn’t seen as a valuable resource. I began with an ‘A’ Level in Textile Design and started working on Loopy Ewes as soon as I had my first yarn processed.”
A change in circumstances saw the farm in Cornwall being sold and Katie heading up-country to the Cotswolds, with her sheep in a trailer, to set up a new life. She now shares her love of rare breeds with husband James, who although has family connections with farming, wasn’t brought up on a farm himself. James has a full-time career in IT but also keeps British White cattle and Katie now has 50 registered pedigree sheep – but they don’t have their own land.
Katie says: “We farm without our own land. It’s hard, but we make it work by Conservation Grazing for landowners throughout the winter and renting land close to home for the summer. We are currently managing over 100 acres, it no longer feels like a small operation.”
She admits that running what amounts to a “mobile farm” is very hard work, but that is obviously something Katie is used to. As well as getting Loopy Ewes up and running, she is now studying for a Masters Degree in Textile Design and between them, James and Katie have four daughters, the youngest having just turned 5. There is also a meat box side to the business and they market their lamb and beef through their partnership Heritage Graziers.
To produce her yarn, Katie takes her fleeces to the Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall, where it is scoured, carded and spun into a chunky knitting yarn. She likes the fact that organic methods are used to dye the yarn to her colour specification, pointing out that in each colourway, you can see the flecks of tan kemp unique to the Portland breed.
Back in the Cotswolds, Katie uses a hand-powered knitting machine to produce a range of home accessories. She says: “I love interiors and I am inspired by Scandinavian design philosophies, I like to combine bright, vibrant colours to create textiles that bring aesthetic pleasure and a sense of warmth and cosiness into the home. It has taken time and a lot of investment to develop my craft and build up a product range, but I now have a limited edition collection that includes handwoven blankets, knitted accessories and sheepskin rugs. My most recent design won a commendation at the Bradford Textiles Society’s 2017 Design Competition for enhancing the versatility of British Wool – it was such an honour to see wool from my rare breed sheep receiving recognition.”
Sales are all currently on-line. Katie says: “I would love to have a shop/studio combined, but the killer is business rates, especially in the Cotswolds. It is so difficult to get onto the High Street. I offer a very artisan product with a special connection to the entire making process, so selling through retailers currently isn't viable as I simply cannot meet the standard wholesale discount. Now that I have built the beginnings of a product range, my next step will be to look at selling through high-end craft fairs to support my online sales.
“My craft is new to me, so it’s a continual journey of learning, but it is so rewarding to work with such a beautiful and sustainable material. Every stage of the yearly cycle is as important as the next, from delivering beautiful lambs and watching their fleeces grow throughout the season, to shearing time and handling over my wool clip to the mill. Finally, when I run the threads of yarn through my hands on the knitting machine, knowing I’ve spent the year caring for the animals that produced it, I feel profoundly connected to my work.”
For more information about rare breeds visit www.rbst.org.uk