Archer & Maiden - fashionable scarves from Africa

Creating the designs provides a living wage for the women

Creating the designs provides a living wage for the women - Credit: Archant

A couple who went searching wildlife in South Africa came back with a new fashion brand.

Gail and John set up the firm after travelling to Africa

Gail and John set up the firm after travelling to Africa - Credit: Archant

A couple on a quest to photograph South Africa’s big cats in the wild came back with more than a camera full of memories. They also created a fashion brand.

Gail Hilton and John Broom describe driving through the vast, empty veldt and stumbling across a group of workshops in the middle of nowhere. Inside, they found local women creating beautiful garments in mohair and wool.

‘Walking inside, we were amazed at what we saw,’ said Gail, a photographer from Withnell, Chorley. ‘It was like stepping back in time. We watched women spinning yarn on traditional wooden spinning wheels, dying and winding it into balls, then adding elements such as beads and ribbons and knitting and crocheting.

‘We saw different types of scarves and throws being made from a selection of yarns in every conceivable colour and we learnt all about natural fibres, including silk, banana, bamboo, wool and mohair and how they can be made into the most amazing things.’

One of the scarves modelled on the moors above Withnell

One of the scarves modelled on the moors above Withnell - Credit: Archant

John had been interested in creating a fashion label. ‘Life is all about taking opportunities along the way,’ he said. ‘I didn’t want to look back in ten years and be wishing I had given it a go.’

Archer & Maiden was born and you could say it was written in the stars as the name refers to their astrological signs.

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They made an arrangement with the women from the Xhosa tribe – Nelson Mandela was a member – and started importing scarves of the finest kid mohair earlier this year. Now they are gearing up for the winter season.

Gail, who also works for BAE Systems at Samlesbury, said: ‘It was a huge contrast to the so-called “fast” fashion of today where everything is made on industrial machinery. We found this very refreshing in a world where everything is mass-produced.

‘What really struck us was the craftsmanship involved, the care being taken and the fact that everything in the process was done entirely by hand, using traditional methods to produce unique, high quality items.’

The business gives women from rural areas, where unemployment is high, the chance to earn a living wage. Gail, who is originally from Broughton-in-Furness, said: ‘They are treated with respect and work in good conditions and some of them have stayed with the company for many years.

‘We are acutely aware that to produce fashion for the UK high street, many factory workers in the world’s poorer countries struggle to survive on extremely low pay and work in appalling conditions. It was fantastic to see this clearly wasn’t the case here.

‘In fact, the business works in harmony with local people and the environment and supports and promotes natural, sustainable fibres. There were so many positives to this experience.’

Simple scarves can sell for £20 but the big ‘statement’ pieces go up to £260. John, who runs a business in Macclesfield supplying office equipment such as stainless steel lockers, said: ‘The scarves aren’t the cheapest but they are unique – no one else has the same item.’

Gail added: ‘We loved the idea of a brand that could actually make a contribution to the welfare of others and one that could educate people in the UK and beyond to at least think about the benefits of buying fair trade.’

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Photography: Gail Hilton, Iain Hamilton and Joubert Loots

Hair and make-up: MelVicMakeup and Alison McMath

Models: Sarah Reed, Jen Brook and Stacey Mellin

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