Life: Alpaca Passion; Liz Hands Speaks to Kathryn Shrimpton about How She Is Turning Her Passion for Alpacas into a Knitwear Company with a Very British Philosophy

The Journal (Newcastle, England), October 25, 2008 | Go to article overview

Life: Alpaca Passion; Liz Hands Speaks to Kathryn Shrimpton about How She Is Turning Her Passion for Alpacas into a Knitwear Company with a Very British Philosophy


Byline: Liz Hands

KATHRYN Shrimpton is certainly a woman with a passion. Living in the stunning Tyne Valley countryside, just outside Hexham, Kathryn was always determined to do something with the land surrounding her Lowgate home.

And two years ago, after four years of planning, she finally took the plunge, buying three alpacas.

But Kathryn did not want just any alpacas. She traced the finest black-fleeced alpacas she could.

Now, having extended her herd, Kathryn is using their fleeces - said to be comparable in softness to cashmere - to launch a knitwear business.

"I realised very quickly after buying them that these are fleece-producing animals and I really wanted to do something with their fleeces.

"I would love people to understand the passion we feel about it," says Kathryn, 43, speaking for herself and her knitwear designer Susanne Steward, 42, also from Hexham.

"It's not just another business - it's something we're living and breathing all the time."

Kathryn and Susanne are following in the ethical footsteps of the likes of Izzy Lane, whose knitwear designs come from her flock of Wensleydale and Shetland sheep in North Yorkshire, and Makepiece, which farms, spins and knits the likes of Blue-faced Leicester wool scarves in the UK.

It's a philosophy Kathryn is only too keen to take on board - but with her own unique alpaca-wool twist.

"I'm trying to offer something really new. You can get these items, but they won't be in such a beautiful product and you can get alpaca, but the design won't be there.

"People who have alpacas tend to produce products that are very countryfied, all browns and beiges," she says.

"We wanted to produce a much more contemporary item, something classic and elegant yet with a vintage feel."

Kathryn and her family - husband Paul, 44, a sales director, and children Jack, 18, and Hannah, 15, both at Hexham's Queen Elizabeth High School, and Will, eight - have eight alpacas in total.

The males are Apollo and Prince, who won classes in the Northumberland and Westmorland county shows this year, and the females are Happy, Starlight, Cappuccino, Velvet, Xanthe and Orchid.

They are also about to buy another one, called Scarborough, which is coming from Dorset.

Kathryn is very much tapping into the move away from cheap sweatshop fashion and into a much more ethical product that is made in Northumberland solely from animals in the UK.

Once a year, Kathryn's fluffy alpacas, who pop their heads curiously over the fence of their field when anyone arrives at the door, are shorn.

"I don't have a big enough herd to produce yarn solely from my own," explains Kathryn, "so I go to big breeders across the country to choose the best fleeces. They're all 100% British fleeces and all totally natural in colour.

"It's as black as black can be. People always ask 'will the dye run'? but of course it won't.

"It's the only animal that can produce a pure black fibre in the world."

Because of its pure colour, the whole process is completely natural. There are no chemicals involved at all.

The fleeces, once sorted by Kathryn, are sent to a mini mill in North Wales to be washed, de-haired and then spun into the softest yarn, which is then delivered back to Hexham.

"I was absolutely beside myself when I got my first yarns back," says Kathryn. "So excited". She has a team of knitters to make up Susanne's designs.

They are women with an average age of about 60 who Kathryn has recruited through the Women's Institute and by spreading the word at agricultural shows.

"All the ladies are so delighted to find someone who wants them to knit. They've probably finished knitting for grandchildren and have nothing else to knit and are so pleased to be involved in this.

"They also seem thrilled to be knitting something so contemporary and stylish. …

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