To kick off Earth Week, I sat down with Sally, founder and managing director of Garthenor Organic (and also mum!) to get some insight into why she started the company, and what’s been the driving force behind building a sustainable, ethical and organic yarn company.
What made you want to start a sustainable wool company, and how did it come about?
I’ve always been a knitter, weaver, crocheter and just about anything else involving wool! When I first started setting up the flock here at Garthenor Farm, I specifically chose some interesting native breeds for their wool. Those initial few Shetland, Ryeland, Manx Loaghtan and Herdwick sheep let me experiment and learn about their fleeces. Once I’d learnt to shear, it meant I could see a lamb be born, take it through growing and shearing a fleece, then spin and knit that fibre into a jumper. Being able to see and feel that entire process happen is truly magical.
At the time, there was a small woollen mill a few miles away, and I sent a couple of small batches of fleece to be commercially spun. When it was done, I then realised it was far too much for my own use, so booked a stall at the local farmers market. When the initial balls and skeins of yarn sold out that first weekend, that was when I realised it wasn’t just me that was glad to be able to use natural fibres from British sheep, completely traceable and made entirely in the UK.
When you started, there weren’t any organic standards for textiles, you were the driving force in changing this, tell me about that.
Whilst our sheep and the land they graze was all certified organic, and we were allowed to call the yarn “from organic sheep” I felt that unless the entire chain of production could be certified, it didn’t tell the whole story.
Working alongside our local mill and the Soil Association, we all agreed that organic wool should be certified, and set about building a framework of organic standards from scratch.
In 2003 we finalised those initial standards and were able to process the worlds first ever batch of wool yarn that was certified organic from sheep to skein. I still have a jumper that I knitted from that very first batch, it’s much loved and much worn by now, and it’s irreplaceable.
At this point, the yarn wasn’t certified to Global Organic Textile Standards, when did that come along?
When we started the organic certification, GOTS already existed but only for cotton. We pushed for the Soil Association standards to become part of GOTS, as this would give greater transparency and accountability not just for us, but for growers, producers and manufacturers all over the world. This finally happened in 2006, and since then every yarn we’ve made has been certified to GOTS.
Why is organic so fundamental to the way that you believe a yarn should be made?
I’ve always been a vocal advocate of organic farming, gardening and manufacturing, and Garthenor Organic is a natural extension to that. Ultimately it comes down to the fact that there’s no other way I’d rather make yarn.
For almost twenty years we produced exclusively undyed yarns, what brought about the ranges of dyed yarns?
Whilst organic standards for dyeing came about fairly soon after we started, I was never completely comfortable with the process and the transparency surrounding dyeing. When we met Keith, managing director at Paintbox Textiles, we were able to have about a year of open discussions, sampling and many, many visits to the dyeworks in Yorkshire. I slowly became more confident that we’d found a partner who shares my original ethos for sustainable production, and the first dyed collections were borne from that.
I’ve always loved our undyed range, and the variety of shades produced from the different breeds that changes year by year, and they’ll always stick around alongside the more colourful options.
With our big move this year to the coast, what does this mean for our sustainable commitments?
Being able to continue pushing for more transparent, sustainable and ethical production has formed the backbone of why we looked to expand. As we’ve slowly built our team and brought more processes under one roof, it’s reduced the miles the fibre must travel and meant we can steadily grow our range of organic yarns.
It’s tiring, stressful and a whole load of work to get set up, but we’re being driven by the excitement of what it could mean not only for us, but for a historic industry.