Monday, October 8, 2012

With the increasing interest in British wool, Katie Wood talks to Beate Kubitz and Nicola Sherlock-Windle, founders of Makepiece, a designer clothing label dedicated to sustainable and eco-friendly knitwear.

What's your story? How did you end up founding Makepiece?

Makepiece is the result of a lucky meeting. In 2003 I [Beate Kubitz] had left London and was thinking about how to make clothes sustainably. Living in Yorkshire it was obvious that there was lots of a renewable fibre wandering around on the backs of sheep, and after a bit of research I realised what a great fibre wool is, and that it wasn't being shouted about at all. I talked to local farmers, who were gloomy about the prognosis for wool and their general attitude was 'if you think it's such a great idea to market wool, why don't you do it yourself'. So I went out and bought half a dozen Shetland sheep and learned to handspin their wool so that I could see the process. Meanwhile, a small shop had come vacant in our town, Todmorden, and although I hadn't made anything myself (yet) I took it on, selling British mohair socks and other things that a few like-minded souls had started making. The day it opened, a young woman walked in - recently graduated in knitwear from Nottingham Trent University - and started telling me about her graduation collection and how she'd used the principles of the slow food movement to create it. That's how I met Nicola Sherlock and how we started the knitwear design company Makepiece.

What is it that makes Makepiece different to other designer labels?

There are two elements which combine to make Makepiece unique. The designs, which are dramatic and three-dimensional, very much constructed out of intricate stitches rather than using knitting to mimic fabric. The other element is the ethical process we try and stick to in making our knits. We use entirely British wool, including that from our own flock. We always have a few undyed colourways in neutrals from naturally coloured sheep. We spin as locally as possible, dye at a GOTS approved dyer about 20 miles away and generally try to keep our environmental footprint down. All our knitwear is made in our workshop in Todmorden.

Why do you think British wool is so special?

British wool is part of our landscape. It's a great fibre with diverse native breeds that give natural colours and different textures (from Wensleydale to Shetland, Hebridean to Bluefaced Leicester). It's farmed fairly extensively, so sheep spend most of their time outdoors which is easier on the environment and can be farmed with very low inputs. Welfare standards are generally quite high here as we love our animals!

What inspires you when you're designing garments?

We live in a very lovely area, and I think that having an inspiring landscape around us is definitely a good thing. It may not be directly on the drawing board as Nicola designs, but the shapes that emerge from the process definitely resonate with it! The other thing is that as we've limited ourselves to eco-friendly yarns, which have been quite simple, so it's pushed Nicola's stitch design skills to create more and more interesting stitches.

Tell us about your knitted wedding dresses-what made you decide to go down that route?

The wedding dresses came about because we had enquiries from brides - mainly for our shrugs but sometimes for dresses too. After a while it's become one of the delights in the studio - thinking of complex patterns and indulging the desire to make extraordinary and beautiful gowns.

What is the most ambitious product you have produced or attempted to produce?

Nicola's most ambitious and favourite piece is the Truffle wedding gown. She had an idea that took a long time to create using shaped panels, ruffles and complicated construction that's drawn together into a very simple, elegant construction at the top.

Are there any current fashion trends you're getting particularly excited about?

Makepiece tends to be about designing clothes to keep - things that pay too much homage to trends tend to date very quickly. The increasing interest in wool and clothes made sustainably, however, that makes us happy!

Can you talk us through how an item goes from an idea to an outfit?

Quite often a garment will start out as a stitch idea that Nicola has, which she'll work on and develop until it starts to grow and suggest ways that it will work in a garment. Then there'll be a frenzy of development as she takes it in one direction and then another. Then we sit down and try and cut back a bit so that we've got a sensible number of garments based on that idea, drawing them into a balanced collection and making up a selection of final samples.

How is it, having your own sheep? I imagine that's not always plain sailing?

The sheep are the best bit of the day for me. I find them very calming (even when I have to move them from field to field, or sort out a pair of newborn twins). It's a bit of the day when I'm outside in the elements with a fifty plus strong fan club. Sometimes I do turn up in our shop slightly muddy but it makes me happy.

How would you describe Makepiece's style?

Makepiece is intelligent, beautiful and with its own understated drama. Women wearing Makepiece definitely know their own minds and have a strong sense of style.

Visit or pop into the shop at 2 Dale Street, Todmorden.



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