The Background Story
Mandy Marshall moved to the Lake District from south Manchester in 2009. Looking for a new direction she enrolled to train as a Blue Badge Tourist Guide for Cumbria. With a background in retail and fashion the twelve month course studying what defines Cumbria was a challenge. From historic houses to far-flung fells, literary personalities to village traditions, lakeshore walks to fast flowing waterfalls…..there are so many elements….. Having always lived in suburbia this was a complete change of environment and she learnt how essential farming is in preserving this unique landscape.
In 2011 Mandy and her husband Bill moved to Castle Cottage in Near Sawrey, a hamlet on the western shore of Windermere. The village is well known for its connection with Beatrix Potter who owned Hilltop Farm from where she drew many of the scenes in her famous “little books”. In 1913 Beatrix married and moved from London to live in Castle Cottage with William Heelis. It was their home for 30 years until her death in 1943.
In her married life Beatrix focused on farming and was passionate about the Herdwick breed. She described them as “hardy and independent”, perhaps she identified with these characteristics!
Breeding prize-winning Herdwick sheep was an important part of preserving the breed and her trusted shepherd Tom Storey was crucial in this endeavour. He was her farmer at Hilltop and she was proud when the farm began to use a red H as the “smit mark” to identify their flock.
When furnishing their new home Mandy and Bill wanted to use local products. They fitted Herdwick carpet supplied by Wools of Cumbria Carpets in what had been Beatrix’s sitting room and the National Trust were happy to return some of her original furniture. In searching for fabric to cover window seats Mandy discovered some worsted Herdwick Tweed tucked away in the store room of a gentleman’s outfitters.
Impressed by the quality of the material, the subtlety of the colours and the provenance in the tweed she had an idea....
Her aim was to create a quality product that was contemporary in design but rooted in the heritage of Cumbria. Essential to this was that the bags should be made in the region and she sourced a quality manufacturer based in Carlisle. Mandy worked closely with the bag manufacturers to design the first range of bags which were ready in early 2013. Everybody who set foot in Castle Cottage was asked their opinion on style and details. Tweaks were made to the designs and bag production began.
Herdwick Limited launched at Woolfest in Cockermouth June 2013.
They had a great reception which was a major confidence boost for the fledgling business and the first opportunity to gauge public response to the products.
Enthusiasm and encouragement for the bags, offers of help and advice from farmers and weavers for when we reached the stage of producing our own fabric in the future, camaraderie from the stallholders. There could be no turning back but we needed to be able to reproduce the original worsted Herdwick Tweed and so a learning process began.
The ethos behind Herdwick products is that, as far as possible, everything is from Cumbria.
From the outset Mandy wanted to definitively know the provenance of the wool. This meant buying fleece directly from the farmer and she needed the flock to be divided at shearing time into colour groups. The fleeces could then be spun to produce yarn of differing undyed shades from which a natural coloured tweed could be woven. Adding to the list of requirements she wanted the farms she bought from to be owned by the National Trust and reflect Beatrix Potter's legacy.
If you saw the Back To The Land programme you will remember the last scene where Mandy shared with Kate that the second weaving had failed! The issue was with the strength of the yarn. After several months of research, yarn testing and trials a new batch of yarn was commissioned in January 2017 using fleece clipped in 2016 from Townhead Farm, Grasmere and Tilberthwaite in Coniston. The process is lengthy as our yarn is worsted spun to create a smooth fine finish. Whilst waiting for the newest yarn another batch was trialled which again failed.
The new specification yarn was delivered in late April and an experienced home weaver in Penrith, Cumbria trialled the weaving over May Bank Holiday weekend. The results seemed positive and so the yarn was set on the loom at Farfield Mill in Sedburgh. On May 14th Head Weaver David, harnessed his 60 years of experience, started the weave and it worked!
Herdwick Limited can continue.........