On the rural outskirts of Leeds, a small team of new hand knitting aficionados have a master plan: to make Yorkshire world famous for wool production once more. Starting out as a tiny wool shop selling other people’s yarns and later becoming a knitting brand stocked by over 250 retailers across the globe, baa ram ewe has made a big impact on the yarn industry – making people think completely differently about yarn and Yorkshire yarn, in particular.
We spent time with Verity Britton to hear about her small business and the passion behind it.
The beginning: grist for the mill
“We care more today about where things are made, what things are made of and how disposable things are. Ten years ago, most yarns were made from acrylics and it was very hard to find natural wool products. Most, if not all, of those yarns weren’t spun in the UK and it was hard to find a mill that was even spinning back then,” explains Verity. A very sound and professional overview of the industry before she started baa ram ewe, but the industry situation wasn’t the driver behind Verity’s new career.
“Big life events can make you evaluate what you’re doing,” says Verity. She was working in radio when tragedy struck, and she lost her mother. She turned to knitting for comfort. “My grandmother taught me to knit when I was little, and both my grandma and my mum were massive knitters. When I lost my mum, knitting became something that I just wanted to do. So, I started knitting again and soon I was really into it.”
Verity wasn’t impressed with the wool that was on offer – even in the heart of Yorkshire. And she guessed that there must be people out there who, like her, wanted to knit stylish garments made out of natural fibres in colours they wanted to wear.
So, Verity left her career in radio and opened a wool shop with just enough money for some stock and the first month’s rent. Although the inspiration came from her mum and grandma’s great love for knitting, a deeper purpose started to take shape: revitalising the Yorkshire yarn industry.
Verity became determined to find a way of supporting a wider local industry that had been central to the history and development of Yorkshire’s towns, cities, farms and fields. “In a nutshell,” she says, “our goal was to put Yorkshire back on the knitting map.”
From sheep to shop
The shop was doing well when an opportunity came up with a local mill for baa ram ewe to make their own yarn. “We wanted to source Yorkshire suppliers and breeds of wool. But blending yarns is a bit like alchemy – if you put one breed together with another breed and a little bit of something else you get this amazing blend.
“So, we combined the silky drape of the Wensleydale with the bounce and body of the Bluefaced Leicester and then we sprinkled in some fairy dust – the soft Alpaca. We ordered one box and sent it off to some reviewers. The next thing we knew we had a wonderful review from an American blogger with a very large following, and we came in one morning to a pile of orders!”
At this point Verity realised that the demand was there and that baa ram ewe needed to scale-up production. “We needed to start working with some of the bigger mills and producing enough to meet our orders,” says Verity.
Keeping up with growth
Verity quickly learnt that if she was going to run a business, she had to confront the dreaded spreadsheet and come to grips with the finances. Although securing an order with John Lewis seemed like certain success, the high volumes needed for production and the longer terms with the large chain meant that they needed to bridge the financial gap between production and payment.
“I think invoice finance is really valuable to us because it’s not just borrowing for the sake of borrowing – it’s bridging a gap,” explains Verity. “So, it’s very functional and very practical. And, when you’re a small business, you’ve got to be really wary of just taking on more and more debt.”
Like many small businesses, baa ram ewe regularly comes up against long, or sometimes even late, payments. “I think this is something that will be an issue more and more as time goes on,” says Verity. “Working with MarketFinance gives us a way to solve these kinds of problems quickly and efficiently.”
Adapting to change
“We know our underlying ethos about how we want to affect the Yorkshire industry will remain unchanged” says Verity. “But we need to be flexible and adaptive in how we make that happen. For example, we made the difficult decision to close our shop even though we loved being face-to-face with the knitting community on the high street. Now we focus on our online sales, trade shows and even developing a new ready-made product line of bouncy, British, wool socks.”
“Being in business for ten years is an amazing achievement that I’m really proud of, but even more than that, I’m proud to be responsible for a product that is sourced from Yorkshire sheep, produced by Yorkshire mills and inspired in look and in name by the beauty of Yorkshire.”