Woven Wonders

Born out of the bleak but beautiful landscape of the Romney Marsh come materials that are woven wonders, evoking the desolate and eerily enchanting scenery that has inspired many artists who have been captivated by its wild charm for years.

Words: Louise Tomlin

It’s not only those driven by artistic endeavours who have sparks of creative genius: Pat Alston had a eureka moment when considering the sheep that have grazed the Romney Marshes since the 7th century, an area that her family has roots in. Pat was concerned that the Romney area, already classed as deprived, would suffer further due to the planned decommissioning of the nuclear power stations at Dungeness.

As a natural problem solver, she was trying to find ways to help alleviate the impact of the loss of this major employer and to find ways to bring some wealth and opportunities back to the area.

Her flash of brilliance was in making a connection between the highly prized brand of Harris Tweed from the Outer Hebrides during a conversation with a local County Official when discussing the wool from the hardy Romney sheep, which he informed her had to be sent to Wales to be woven. This sparked the thought, why not have a Romney Tweed, made from the wool of Romney Sheep, made by local weavers that used colours inspired by the natural habitat: the marsh, sky, sea and grassland?

Joining the dots further she realised it could be a social enterprise run by local people as a CIC, a Community Interest Company, to help revitalise the area that was suffering from the hardships of unemployment due to the Power Station shutting down. Once the thought came, Pat, who had no practical experience of weaving but who did have well-connected friends, amongst them a tailor in Savile Row, who knew many people involved in the high-end cloth industry, found avenues of help and advice. This included an introduction to C and J Antich, a Yorkshire weaving company well known for producing superb quality and world-famous worsted cloth, definitely a very useful introduction for someone bent on creating a new brand of tweed. Along with her husband, retired diplomat Robert Alston and others who were equally keen to help the local people and the area, the creation of Romney Tweed CIC began and it was established in 2014.

St Thomas a Becket Church, Fairfield, New Romney Photo: © Ashley Fuggle

The journey continued with milestones reached including research and development visits to the mill in Yorkshire, which was the beginning of a long and extremely useful relationship between the burgeoning Romney Tweed CIC and its nurturing weaving partner, that still thrives to this day. The realisation that the wool produced by Romney fleeces could be made into not just blankets and carpets, but a rather fine worsted cloth of apparel grade, saw the brand take on new heights of expectation of a future clothing line made from the fine woven threads.

Having the idea was great, but what was needed was someone with the design skills to take the plan to the next level. After discussions with a tutor on the textile design course at Central St Martins in London, Pat invited a group of the students from the course to visit the Marshes and immerse themselves in the delights of the beguiling place. The purpose of this was to give the students a design challenge on returning to the college: they had six weeks to design a tweed cloth that was the result of their inspiring trip.

It was through this process that Rosie Green, who is now the Designer and Weaver in Residence at Romney Tweed, was found. She was one of the three finalists whose designs were chosen by the judging panel. Her initial introduction to Pat and Romney Tweed has proven to be serendipitous; she stayed in touch and after graduating from her Masters, when an opportunity emerged for a collection to be created for the prestigious Royal St. George’s Golf Club at Sandwich her involvement was key. Using her design skills in drawing on the colours of the flora native to the home of the club, its rich heritage and the surrounding landscape to create the colour pallet that is evocatively woven into the tweed that is now synonymous with the famous golf club’s brand.

To date, Romney Tweed has launched three successful collections: Coastal, Heritage and the most recent Prospect in 2021. All purchases of the cloth support the original aim of the CIC to boost local industry as well as helping local young people gain skills and employment. Rosie Green tells us, “Along with the very popular weaving courses for the general public, we run important initiatives in some local schools. We give young people a chance to explore our industry by giving them research projects and fashion challenges, enabling them to gain knowledge of the local heritage and of weaving and textiles. They learn about collections, create mood-boards, it’s really important to foster knowledge of the industry that previously they may not have any idea about, this is a way of broadening horizons and showing them the possibility of choosing the textile industry as a future career path.”

Rosie continues, “A subject that is often high on the agenda with the younger generation and now is something that is on many people’s minds is sustainability. We are very proud of being a brand with heritage and traceability; Romney Tweed is a biodegradable product, with ‘cradle to grave’ green credentials. We have a totally transparent supply chain, even being able to pinpoint the exact flock our wool comes from, and we have utter trust in our mills’ processes, all water used is recycled and we have a zero-waste product.”

The recent lockdown due to the pandemic gave the company an opportunity to focus on updating their website and to launch online sales both of their tweeds by the metre and their products which include soft furnishings, ponchos, flat caps, bags, dog collars. There are two new projects launching in Autumn 2021 a new herringbone cloth available in three colour ways, and also a bespoke personal tweed designed for the Sheriff Elect of the City of London, Alderman Alison Gowman. Rosie has worked closely with her to create a striking tartan that reflects Alison’s personality with threads of postbox red and royal purple which she will wear in her new role.

So it’s onwards and upwards for this unique Community Interest Company born from altruistic ideals. The short history is already a rich and colourful pattern – long may it continue to weave its magic into a successful future.

Find out more at romneytweed.co.uk

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