How Romney Tweed were inspired by the sheep farming heritage of Romney Marsh
- Credit: Archant
How the sheep farming heritage of Romney Marsh, an area of great natural beauty but high unemployment, helped inspire the creation of Romney Tweed | Writer: Sarah Sturt - Pictures: Manu Palomeque
Driving through the glorious landscape of Romney Marsh, the reason for my visit was evident all around me; hundreds of Romney sheep dotted every field I passed.
From early medieval times, Romney wool played a significant part in the English woollen industry, the most important export commodity to Europe in the Middle Ages.
It became a major source for the broadcloth industry of Wealden Kent and by the end of the 19th century, Romney sheep had been exported worldwide.
My destination was social enterprise company Romney Tweed CIC, set up in 2014 following a report published in 2011 that examined the socio-economic impacts on the local economy of nuclear decommissioning at Dungeness A site.
It asked what would happen to the people on the Marsh when the biggest employer in the area disappeared, and how it could be kept as a great place to live, work and play.
Pat Alson, co-founder of Romney Tweed, takes up the tale. “Together with a couple of friends we said ‘we must do something’ – we all love the Marsh – and tourism or manufacture of some kind seemed to be the answer.
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“The obvious solution to the manufacturing side was the sheep, because they’ve been here 700 years – and then someone from KCC pointed out that wool from Romney Marsh was having to be sent to Wales to be dyed and woven and why wasn’t there a mill on the marsh?”
When space at the Romney Resource Centre for a start-up company became available, Pat and her husband Robert’s dream of encouraging local industry and helping young people acquire skills and find jobs started to take shape.
Another significant step forward came when friends in Savile Row put Pat in touch with Yorkshire weavers C&J Antich, who produce worsted cloth for some world-famous fashion brands. It was an eye-opener.
“When we saw the size of a weaving mill the whole thing became clear; we couldn’t possibly cope with that down here on the Marsh. It was the size of three football pitches!” laughs Pat.
But their Yorkshire mentors were immediately onside and have remained so ever since, offering unstinting support and encouragement to the Kent newbies on the weaving scene.
A breakthrough came when research backed by Yorkshire expertise revealed that Romney wool, traditionally used in carpets and blankets and rather on the hairy side, could also be used to make fine worsted cloth.
This chimed with Pat’s wish to create apparel with timeless appeal that would strike a chord with the younger generation as well as traditional ‘country types.’
Then in 2012 Sir David Hugh Wootton, who lives in Sevenoaks and is a patron of Romney Tweed, became Lord Mayor of London.
Bradford-born, he chose wool as the theme for his mayoral year and invited his Romney friends to take a stand at a reception he was holding at Mansion House.
“By that stage we had a story to tell and some woven and dyed yarn made down to a fine thread to put on display,” says Pat. “People were interested.”
The Romney team also showed at a conference attended by The Worshipful Companies of the Weavers, the Dyers and the Drapers – and fashion designer Paul Smith.
Rosie Green, who now enjoys the very grand title of weaver in residence, came on the scene in 2014 following a suggestion that Pat talked to the tutor of this talented then second-year textile student at Central St Martins.
A meeting in London went well and Rosie and her fellow students (22 girls, one boy) all spent a day on Romney Marsh. “It was 6 February, dull, dark and horrible” recalls Pat.
“They came down in the Watford Football Club coach, complete with casino and oven in the back, and visited the lighthouse, Prospect Cottage, had lunch at The Pilot ran around Dungeness in the rain and simply fell in love with the place.”
The group also visited Wimble Farm (many of these city kids had never been on a farm before) and a graders at Smeeth, where they met representatives from British Wool and were shown parts of the fleece.
On their return the students had six weeks to design tweed cloth with a particular gentleman in mind, based on the Romney Marsh and in particular Dungeness and the historic Marsh churches.
Pat was part of the judging panel that had the difficult task of choosing three winning designs. This in turn led to the opportunity to produce designs rooted in the Kent landscape for Royal St George’s Golf Club in Sandwich.
“We knew they would only go for a bespoke tweed if it was completely unique to them and based on their heritage,” says Rosie.
“So we travelled around the links on a golf buggy with a botanist from the Royal Botanical Society to look at plants that were native to the area, like the lizard orchid and Viper’s bugloss – then started to colour match them.
“I spent a whole day going through photo albums and archives to understand the club’s history and identity. We looked at past presidents and members (who included Ian Fleming) to get ideas and develop a colour palette and ultimately a 12-piece collection.”
It took a panel from the golf club three months to pick the final design, but the winning Club tweed is now being made into everything from curtains and cushion covers to the beautiful bespoke cape High Sheriff of Kent Remony Millwater is modelling for us on the previous page.
In 2015 the Heritage Collection was launched – marketed nationally to Savile Row and internationally by Yorkshire cloth merchant Dugdale Bros.
Three years later, the move to its current Old Romney location, The Granary, enabled a weaving hub, showroom, and administrative centre to be established, with locally made products in Romney tweed for sale, plus popular weaving courses led by Rosie.
Last year, a new collection inspired by the changing seasons of the marshland and shingle was produced and a Fashion Challenge project set up with Sandwich Technical School and The Marsh Academy, where students learnt to design and weave their own tweed.
The team used lockdown to update its website, launch online sales for its products (which would make perfect Christmas presents) and design a new collection.
The driving need now is to find new premises by the end of 2020 and, with the right kind of support and backing, maybe one day soon achieve that dream of building a Mill on the Marsh – boosting both tourism and job prospects in this glorious but deprived region. If you can help, please get in touch.
The Granary, Jessamine Farm, Romney Marsh TN29 9SG
firstname.lastname@example.org, 01797 364186