Fashion-savvy shoppers in search of quality like to see and feel the goods for themselves before parting with their cash. It’s something that has not changed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, continuing to this day at Britain’s market towns and country shows.
“I’ve done it all my life,” says Tim Heaton, younger son of family business Westmorland Sheepskins. “With the shows you get a target market. People also like the face-to-face selling. Because my dad has been doing it so long, he’s built a large customer base. ”
Dad is Howard Heaton, who launched Westmorland Sheepskins in 1980 and, as he was living in Kirkby Lonsdale at the time, borrowed the name from the old county of Westmorland. Howard was able to build on his experience with his first family business, Heatons, suppliers and manufacturers of sheepskin coats and school garments. It operated for more than 130 years in Leeds, where a domed building called Heatona House was built for it on the corner of New York Road, now home to a Brewdog pub.
Sticking to what he knew and loved – five generations of Heatons had worked with, handled and traded in skins – meant that specialising in sheepskin was a sensible move. Now based in Alwoodley, Leeds, Westmorland Sheepskins has also been a family affair from the beginning, with wife Joan working in the business, as well as sons Joe and Tim.
Like Howard, Joe takes Westmorland Sheepskins out to the markets of the North – Hawes on Tuesday, Kirkby Moorside and Barnard Castle on Wednesday, Reeth on Friday and Newcastle on Sunday – as well as to shows the length of the land, from Ayr to Plymouth. They sell mainly sheepskin slippers, rugs, gloves and women’s footwear, plus leather handbags, purses and wallets.
The company has two vans which have to be unpacked and packed up every day, “regardless of the weather,” says Tim. “My dad has done Hawes and Kirkby for about 25 or 30 years. Sometimes he sends a picture when someone has parked on his pitch and he has to build the stall all around it. It’s a hazard of the job.”
Tim helps out when needed, but his main role for the past three years has been setting up and running the online side of the business, with the help of his fiancée, Dominique Attwood. Calling upon contacts including local photographer Lisa Stonehouse and stylist Sally Pellen, the couple staged Westmorland Sheepskins’ first fashion shoot, using as locations The Star Inn at Harome, near Helmsley, a friend’s house at Moortown, Leeds, for the baby shots and Almscliffe Crag. The models are all friends and relatives of Tim and Dominique.
Westmorland Sheepskin doesn’t manufacture, but works with a number of high-quality manufacturers, many in Britain for the sheepskin (for example, Owen Barry) and with small manufacturers in Italy and Spain for the shoes and leather accessories.
The company has a say in the design and some manufacturers make certain lines especially for them. With the sheepskin, they have a close relationship with a number of companies, many based in Somerset and Devon. For the stalls, they stock around 60 lines of leather shoes (for example, Joseph Seibel) and about 30 different slipper styles.
A further new retail route came when the firm took a full-time unit at Crimple Hall in Harrogate, where you can find their sheepskin rugs for £45 and baby sheepskin bootees for £10. “Garden centres are becoming the new go-to destination,” says Dominique. “There’s free parking, you don’t have to go into town. They’re being a lot more forward-thinking and this is the right customer base for us.”
Online the main business is slippers, typically costing £50-65, from Shepherd of Sweden. Brands such as Ugg have made sheepskin popular for a younger generation, which helps. Headwear also does well, and they have branched online into children’s and babywear. They have also launched a new home range online, selling chair cushions and stool covers alongside their sheepskin rugs, plus rare breed Baa stools, hand-made in Wales.
Dominique, who is Welsh, shares with Tim a passion for rugby. In fact, Tim left his job at Leeds Rugby three years ago to join the family firm, although he continues playing for Harrogate, while Dominique has represented Wales. They have two children, Gryff, three months, and Huw, nearly two, and they are getting married this April. Busy isn’t the word.
Still, there’s more to do. Long-term plans include opening their own shop, more retail units in mills and garden centres, plus growing the online business. But online will never take over from the markets and shows, says Tim. So it continues to be all hands to the pump with Howard, Joan, Joe and Tim and their three sisters all helping out during seasonal peaks, as well as Dominique’s family.
Meanwhile, there’s a wedding to plan, and another photoshoot, with 2016 set to be a very memorable year for Westmorland Sheepskins.