PHASE THREE - IS THERE A MARKET FOR CLOTH MADE FROM ROMNEY WOOL?
In order to move on to Phase Three – market research and market testing - we needed some funding. In May 2014 we were fortunate that an application to The Worshipful Company of Drapers was successful. They understood that to be able to set up the administrative hub and begin the process of training young people it was necessary to establish that there was definite interest in the project and cloth of Romney Tweed. We also needed to establish that there was a potential market for Romney Tweed. Without a market, there would be absolutely no point in teaching the skills needed to produce it. We were all most grateful for the faith the Drapers Company showed in our ability to achieve this.
The Drapers' grant enabled us to fund our plans for Phase 3. A project was set up by Dr Heather McLaughlin, Head of the Business School of Canterbury Christ Church University, to assess potential markets and establish what competition we would face. Three students spent some weeks comparing the success of hand-weaving businesses in the British Isles. Their findings showed that there appeared to be a gap for an England tweed brand to sit alongside Harris Tweed and comparable businesses in Ireland and that creating an identity and establishing routes to market were extremely important.
Earlier in the year we had been invited to participate in the Kent Show due to take place over three days in July 2014. Thanks to the Drapers’ grant we were able to commission some publicity for Romney Tweed and the resultant interest from both the sheep farmers and members of the general public assisted our market testing. We were placed in the Wool Tent alongside the British Wool Marketing Board and the Kent Wool Growers, and with the help of Ellen and young students from Central St. Martin’s succeeded in sharing the award for Second Best Presentation in the Agricultural Section.
Thirdly, the grant enabled us to employ a project-coordinator on a part-time basis , thus freeing the members of the Board to concentrate on the areas where they could bring most benefit.
At the end of August 2014 Gordon Kaye took Steven Hirst's "Huddersfield blanket" to Dugdale Bros, a leading woollen merchant in Huddersfield, for an opinion on the "handle" before the cloth was cut up into swatches for displaying to possible interested bodies. They were impressed with both the worsted cloth and the story and ordered 12 designs on the spot, with an additional three the following week. This caused great excitement and immediate efforts were made to identify a source of sufficient wool of the right quality. Once again, Martin Curtis came to our rescue and a "top" 1000 kg of Romney wool was produced to be spun by Spectrum Yarns before being dyed by Paint Box Textiles, woven by Chris Antich and finished by W.T. Johnson & Sons.
The process of turning fleece into woven cloth is a long affair, and it was an emotional moment to see the finished bolts of Romney Tweed cloth some months later. The subsequent swatches produced by Dugdale Bros, launched on their website and now to be seen in the showrooms of Savile Row tailors brought a strong sense of pride.
In March 2015 a local launch of the cloth – "First Off the Loom" - at the Romney Marsh Business Centre - proved popular, with young and old queuing up to buy their own metres of this unique cloth woven from the wool of their local sheep.
In June an article in The Financial Times led to the donation by a local benefactor of two new handlooms, made by a long-established local firm Emmerich (Berlon) Ltd (EMIR) as a kick-start to our project on the Marsh. EMIR are also restoring for us a 19th century loom found in the basement of The Worshipful Company of Drapers.
Romney Tweed CIC continued to be kept in the public eye during 2015 with a presence at Premiere Vision in Paris in February, at the Kent Show in July, and at the "Sheep on the Row" event in Savile Row at the start of Wool Week in October.
Various items of apparel for both men and women produced during this period confirmed the high quality of the tweed's "handle". A suit made by London tailor Timothy Everest MBE for Damian Collins, our local and supportive MP has already made its appearance on TV.
Some accessories have been produced as samples and are ready for market testing. It is to be hoped that these will lead the way for value-added opportunities on the Romney Marsh for those who would like to have their own start-up businesses.