Wool Textiles for Film and Fashion

September 2014

Stansborough Textiles produce wool from their own Gotland Pelt Sheep for film and fashion

An English couple have taken wool from their own sheep and turned it into highly prized fashion garments, used in films like Lord of Rings and The Hobbit, and other home textile products which are sold to local and international markets.

Cheryl and Barry Eldridge migrated to NZ from the UK in 1971. They loved the rural life and in 1991 set out to buy a lifestyle block. They ended up buying 1,000ha of rough and hilly farmland in the Wairarapa. It was being farmed conventionally, if not very profitably, running sheep and beef.

The Eldridge’s plan was to employ a manager to run the farm and meanwhile they would look for ways to diversify. Tourism was one alternative, so they renovated a cottage for farm stays. They also bought alpacas on to the property.

Cheryl then heard about a farmer who had a flock of “Gotland Pelt’ sheep. Gotlands are a primitive breed with curly grey lustrous fleeces, bred for their pelts rather than the wool. The breed originates from the Gotland Island off the Swedish coast, though the original ones were brought to NZ from Denmark by LambXL. The sheep had been brought to New Zealand for development of the pelt\fur coat market, but it proved unsustainable at that time. Cheryl saw potential in taking the breed back to their roots as a textile breed, and to create fabrics and garments for the fashion industry. So she bought the flock.

The challenges were huge for the Eldridges, even though Cheryl had grown up on sheep farms in the UK. She bought all the stored embryos and semen developed by LambXL and embarked on a 15 year breeding programme, with help from vet\embryologist Trevor Cook, to produce a flock with wool suitable as a fashion textile fibre.

The breed was then officially registered in 2003 and today the farm runs 1200 purebred Stansborough Greys, along with a herd of 60 alpacas, which also provide natural coloured fibre for the Stansborough business.

Neither Cheryl nor Barry had detailed knowledge of how to run a sheepbreeding programme, but as Cheryl was certain their flock had potential for producing a fibre for use in the fashion industry, breeding for desired wool traits was an obvious target.

Neil Mackie is General Manager of one of the few yarn spinners left in New Zealand, called Woolyarns NZ Ltd. They create woollen spun yarn for some of the Stansborough range from their factory in Waterloo. Fully worsted spun yarns are spun elsewhere by Design Spun in Napier.

The Eldridges quickly realised there was no-one in the wool industry who had the machinery to handle this unique fibre. Barry and Cheryl met someone north of Masterton who had old looms suitable for their purposes. They were built in 1890 but still in working order. Cheryl spent the next 4 years mastering the skills of commercial weaving and design on these looms. Then Barry sold his engineering business and began working with Cheryl developing their textile business.

Barry draws on his engineering background, working alongside Richard Graham the mill manager, to keep the historic looms operating. The looms weigh over 3 tons each and are extremely complicated to use. Barry and Cheryl bought two and initially used these, then purchased another four from the South Island which Richard help commission into service. They now have 6 fully operational machines and a slightly more modern wide blanket loom.

The looms were among the first mechanical worsted looms ever designed and are ideal for small runs of fabric. They also give the textiles an authentic, handmade look. Additionally, they enable Stansborough to offer a bespoke design and weave service for clients who want to develop something more exclusive.

Today the weaving mill makes fabric and finished products to meet local and export orders and is also a tourist attraction, showing how weaving was done 100 years ago.

Originally Cheryl concentrated on the woven fabric and made visits to New York and London and clinched a couple of contracts to top fashion houses.But the big breakthrough came when she was approached by one of Peter Jackson’s costume designers asking if the Eldridges could weave the cloth for the fellowship cloaks for “Lord of the Rings”. They spent many months, 7 days a week, producing over 1000 metres of cloth in various designs for the movie.

They have since produced costume textiles for Disney’s Narnia -The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian, The Waterhorse, Kidnapped, Spartacus, Wolverine, Slow West and The Hobbit Trilogy.

Stansborough’s products have been sold in New York, London and Sydney, to SAKS Fifth Avenue and Liberty’s, as well as used by international interior designers and architects.

Cheryl has continued to diversify her range of goods, including blankets, throws, shawls, handbags, baby wear, hats, scarves etc., selling them both overseas and locally, always at a premium. Their new stylish corporate packaged range has been a huge hit, especially with NZ VIP visitors.

But Cheryl also states her success has been built on detailed research of markets, maintaining contacts, delivering on time and to expectations of continued high quality. Cheryl says a lot of the New Zealand textile industry has closed down, which has made things harder.

She says that growers need to be able to understand what the market wants and how to produce it. That’s what will get the industry growing. “I’ve got a foot in both camps which helps, but it’s hard when you are a full time farmer and you have to try and understand what the city markets are looking for. We did it from the other end – we went out and looked at what the market wanted and then came back and produced what the markets want. We have had to continue to do that and constantly think outside the box.”