Glencroft Countrywear is a Dales family business that prides itself on British-made knitwear and country clothing. The Japanese love it. Stephanie Smith talks to Edward Sexton, second generation owner.
First, meet your sheep. This is what Edward Sexton decided he must do in order to understand the journey made by his Glencroft Countrywear jumpers. And so it was, rather like a scene from a Hardy novel, that he set off recently for the slopes of Ingleborough to join several farmers as they gathered their flocks to lower grounds, as they do several times a year for shearing, lambing, welfare and for market.
“I tried not to get in the way,” he says. “I didn’t know how that whole thing worked at all. It’s fascinating to realise that this is going on every day of the year. You see the sheep in the fields, but you don’t see the work that goes into that.”
Glencroft Countrywear is based not far away, in a 300-year-old converted cow barn in Clapham in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, from where it send out its jumpers, cardigans, ponchos, flat caps, sheepskin hats, gloves and slippers, scarves, jackets and hand-finished sheepskin rugs.
The brand was established in 1987 by Edward’s parents Richard and Justina Sexton, wholesaling classic British countrywear made from natural fibres including British wool, Harris tweed and sheepskin. Now, as then, the philosophy is to responsibly source high quality materials for timeless, honest clothing.
Edward says: “We try to use undyed wool, which means if you smell it, it smells like a sheep, which is kind of our selling point, but we do get calls from people every now and again complaining. If you just buy wool from the High Street, you’ve never smelt that smell before.”
They show at trade fairs in the UK and Scotland and there meet their customers, many independent shops, including castle and stately home gift shops looking for products with a British pedigree.
Glencroft has been in Clapham since 1992, having started in Settle after Richard moved the family from his native London up to Yorkshire in 1983, working as a salesman in Cowan Bridge for the company that became Jumpers and then Tulchan. He set up his own business, realising there was a place for someone buying from small mills and factories across the UK in bulk, then selling on in small quantities to independent shops. Edward says: “There were still lots of tiny cottage industries, so it worked quite well. Over the last 30 years, we’ve seen more go out of business that you can imagine, so the set-up’s a bit different now.”
Design happens in collaboration with the manufacturers. About 80 per cent of Glencroft’s products are made in the UK, including in two mills in Yorkshire. “We take redundant yarn or spare yarn from them,” Edward says. “That’s how we can them produce a product at a reasonable price, to sell to shops. It fills a gap for them. The thing with factories is that they have to produce all year round.”
Knitwear is all knitted in Manchester, using mostly British wool, much of it from and processed in Yorkshire. Slippers are made in Somerset, hats in Manchester and some sheepskin slippers and all lambskin gloves are made in Portugal. Styles do change but traditional country clothing is what they stick to, says Edward, and they don’t really do seasons. “There’s not an awful lot of companies left doing this. They like the fact that they are buying something that’s real, made from 100 per cent wool, not coming in from the Far East –not that there’s anything wrong with that stuff – and the fact that we work out of a barn in the Dales.”
Glencroft also supplies market stall holders across Yorkshire and the UK. “Markets do well for us because there are increasingly farmers’ markets where people are trying to sell more quality goods,” Edward says.
Last summer Glencroft launched its own website, selling direct to the public. Richard had some concerns but Edward talked to trade customers who pointed out that everyone has a website these days, although they were keen not to be undercut. “It also encourages people to go to shops because, actually it’s a bit nicer, trying on, so hopefully, it will be a good complement,” he says.
Now 37, Edward grew up in Clapham, then boarded at Ampleforth. At 18 he went to London for a marketing and law degree at South Bank University, then worked in marketing for media and publishing companies. “I did a Masters to try to push myself on in the big corporate world and realised that, actually, all I’d ever wanted to do was have and run my own brand, and there was a business in the Yorkshire Dales that my family was running. I didn’t even see it as a brand.”
So, five years ago, he found a flat in Leeds and joined the business. His parents were delighted. “Working with family has its challenges, I think they will say, but they are very happy, because it would be very sad, the way my dad has built this business up over the last 30 years, if it just then disappears, so I’m happy to try and take it into the next 30 years.”
Justina, a qualified nurse and midwife, joined the business early on to do the finance and accounts, as she still does, and Richard is head of sales. “He loves chatting to all the companies and he’s really good at it,” says Edward, who looks after everything that involves a computer. They all do the packing every morning. They have just refurbed the warehouse with a grant and there’s a new staff member starting soon. Edward now lives in Yeadon with his partner, Ruth, who works for York Council.
It’s exciting times for Glencroft, with five or six stockists in Japan. They have visited and invited Edward back, and so, with the help of the Department of International Trade in Yorkshire, he is soon off on a 10-day trip. “I’m very excited about that,” he says. “They love traditional British clothing and small brands.”
There’s a small factory shop at Clapham, great for sheepskin offcuts and other bargains. This year they have looked back through the archives and are recreating a jumper from 1987. “It’s torn opinion here,” says Edward. “It’s a sheep jumper. We supply a lot of shops that sell direct to American tourists and people visiting the UK and that is the market I would hit with that. They will love it.”
Who knows? It may well become big in Japan, too.
www.glencroftcountrywear.co.uk. Products are also stocked at Mulberry Bush in Hawes, at Swaledale Woollens and at Grasmere Weavers.