An Interview with Katie Allen from Loopy Ewes

Katie Allen, a shepherdess, a maker, custodian of the land and an advocate for her flock of sheep works to connect people with the reality that clothes come from farming, just like our food. Not from a farming family, it is a passion she grew into, she rarely feels more comfortable in her own skin than when she’s in a field with her flock. It wasn’t how her career started out, Katie spent many years working in the creative world, but when she started farming it felt like coming home. Her flock of rare breed, British sheep graze on an estate in the Cotswolds. As well as the sheep, Katie and her husband run a herd of native breed cattle. Katie farms with a regenerative philosophy, which means she doesn’t just look after the environment, but she proactively trys to encourage wildlife habitats and improve soil health.

“When I ran my marketing and graphic design business I was rurally based working with a lot of farm diversification businesses and that was part of the reason why I became interested in how food is produced. That led me to look at how clothing and cosmetics were made and the chemicals that went into all of these processes. I felt a real pull to work the land, but I don’t come from a farming family and had no agricultural skills, so I went to an agriculture college to do a smallholder course. I completed a couple of training days with Daylesford Organic, which really spurred me on to work outdoors and farm. I bought a small holding of twenty acres down in Cornwall and we converted it into an organic eco-tourism business with a farm shop where I grew fruit and vegetables. We kept pigs and chickens and that’s when I bought my first sheep. It very much came from wanting to work the land and farm, but with an entrepreneurial mindset I also wanted to make the most of the produce I was growing or rearing. I was horrified by all the stories from farmers who were burning or burying their fleeces because sorting, packing and delivering it to the wool depot wasn’t worth the return. I was determined that there had to be a better way. I didn’t grow up in a crafting home; I couldn’t knit, I couldn’t sew, I couldn’t cut fabric straight, I was completely useless when it came to textiles, but I was really determined that I was going to produce something of value with my sheep’s fleeces.

Katie Allen

I moved to the Cotswolds with my children and flock and did an A-level in Textile design, which was really a toe in the water for understanding textiles. Alongside that I bought a knitting machine and started to experiment creating samples. I finished the A-level and felt thirsty for more, my original degree in graphic design enabled me to get onto an MA in Fashion and Textile Design at Bath Spa University. I really don’t think my business would work so well without my background in design – it enables me to take things to a professional level which is really important for me and to adding true value to the raw material. The MA took me five years to complete part time. As well as growing the original flock from 13 to 150, my husband and I set up a conservation grazing business with a herd of native breed cattle so it was a really busy time. In January 2021 I launched my graduate knitwear collection. It was an amazing personal achievement from the first sheep I purchased nearly 10 years ago.

Emma Jane Hague from South West England Fibershed contacted me when they were mapping fibre producers. I hadn’t heard of Fibreshed at the time – my work had come about from a very personal desire to offer provenance and traceability with my own British wool – I wasn’t tapping into the emerging sustainability interest in fashion and textiles. I already had some Fibershed qualified products;a woven fabric which had been made into blankets in 2017, however one of the biggest areas where we differed at that time was that most of my wool was being dyed organically, which doesn’t fit into the Fibershed ethos as that only accredits work that is undyed or using natural dyes. The organic dye process used for my vibrant colours uses; Glaubers salt, vinegar, a mild detergent and a GOTS approved organic Realan EHF dye. They are metal free too. I am interested in looking at natural dye in the future but it’s still new in my region and still on a small scale. It’s part of the reason why I created my undyed collection. I’ve got two different types of sheep in my flock. My Castlemilk Moorit sheep produce a multi-tonal mocha and my Portland sheep produce a lovely ecru colour. For my Fibershed accredited collection I am able to use these fleeces in their most unprocessed state; it’s completely undyed and I feel reflects the very ethos of Fibreshed.

Katie Allen of Loopy Ewes photographed by Alun Callender

One of the things I feel is important about sustainable fashion is that it shouldn’t just be at a designer label price – what does this really achieve? We need real world examples that are going to fix the bigger issue for textile production – not just offer a solution for the luxury market. My products are handmade and that artisan labour cost is reflected in the price, as well as the regional British spinning of the yarns. It’s more expensive than walking into Next and buying a cardigan but I think consumers are beginning to look at the wider cost of what they buy, not just the impact on their bank balance

For someone wanting to make this leap, working for a company that has an ethos that’s aligned with you is a step in the right direction. If you want to work for a company, pursue that, if you have a dream about doing something different then go for it. It is hard, doing anything different or new or that isn’t the status quo is not an easy path to choose. I think the more mainstream this approach comes to fibre and fashion the more opportunities will become available for people who want to work in those types of fields. Farmers are really open about how they are rearing their sheep, and how their fibre is different from someone else’s fibre. If you reach out to them with a genuine attitude they will share. If you are really interested in sustainability within your design approach, you want to share. If it’s your mission, then anything you find you will want to share and for other people to learn from it because you want the world to be better and to grow and develop and growth can’t happen without knowledge.

Katie Allen – Fibershed accredited collection

It’s been an exciting year since graduating. I have completed the Crafts Council Crafting Business programme for makers, which was an incredible opportunity and gave me four months of intensive business training to help make my enterprise more robust. My Fibreshed accredited collection won the Material World brief as part of the 2021 RSA (Royal Society of Arts) Student Design Awards, and received a commendation for Sustainable Design at the Bradford Textiles Society Design Competition. It’s also gone on to be selected for inclusion in the Green Graduates Digital Showcase in the Planted exhibition at the London Design Festival. I really hope the work can shine a light on how it’s possible to produce textiles with regenerative principals at the core.

Katie Allen of Loopy Ewes photographed by Alun Callender

In the future I want to continue making new products, making better products, and growing the flock. People often ask how is it scalable and how are you going to grow the business? I think what’s really important to me is actually I don’t want to grow it into some great big empire, I like the fact that I am the maker, I am the shepherd, I have complete responsibility and accountability over the whole process. I think that helps to keep the mission and core values on track. Every decision I make is based around one person’s ethos and goal and that’s mine. It’s also what people are buying into. I didn’t just knit the jumper, I designed the jumper that they are wearing and I also helped deliver the lamb that grew up and had her fleece sheared, and I drove the wool clip to the mill where it was spun. So it’s about developing the collection, getting better, improving and learning. I really want to share my journey and what I am doing with British wool. It’s so undervalued. Although lots of companies are doing great stuff with British wool, we all need to shout really loudly, so we can help people understand the value of such an amazing fibre, of which we have so much of in this country.” // Instagram: @loopyewes

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