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EFF SOURCE Fashion business success without compromise

1 October 2012

The North Circular: Handmade knitwear with heart and style

Contributor Sarah Ditty

North Circular

The North Circular is a high-end knitwear brand founded by models Lily Cole and Katherine Poulton and handmade by "grannies" in the UK using British wool. SOURCE speaks to Katherine about ethical production and what it takes to succeed as a start-up.

Inspired by models Lily Cole and Katherine Poulton, The North Circular utilises the traditional arts and crafts skills of UK “grannies” to create high-end, fashion forward knitwear.

The aim is to return value to the handmade product, helping to personalise the process of production and to rekindle the relationship between the producer and the purchaser – in this case, the knitter and scarf wearer.

The North Circular only use British wool, predominantly Wensleydale, which is naturally free from the prickly kemp found in other wool. And they take special care to ensure wool is spun and dyed without the use of harmful mordants. Their approach to production inspired the brand’s choice of name – as the wool passes through a 120 mile ‘north circular’ route from sheep to scourer, spinner to dyer, on to knitter.

SOURCE caught up with founder, Katherine Poulton to discuss navigating the challenging and exciting world of start-up fashion business. We find out more about The North Circular production process and strategies for success.

1) Why is sustainable fashion important to you?

I have been in fashion my whole life, and my desire to create some good in the world found its outlet in The North Circular. Each person should work on their own sphere, be it accounting or building or whatever, to bring about the change they want to see in the world.

2) Tell us about how you two set up your supply chain – from sourcing fibres to selecting knitters?

The most important aspect from the start was that the materials be both natural and British.

The sheep sanctuary was the starting point, and from there the interest in wool as a rare and fine fibre was ignited. We developed a great love for the Wensleydale and the Bluefaced Liecter as the cream of British wool.

With every stage, problems inevitably occur, and decisions are always surrounding questions such as: Can it be produced 100% in the UK? Can it be natural? And then the solutions come from those – the knitters we get come from recommendations and The Knit Guild, but now from the press we’ve generated, we have many talented knitters contact us.

3) How do you think being directly involved in every step of the production process changes the ethos behind your brand? Have there been any surprises along the way?

The whole process is fascinating and boundless and limiting all at the same time. The ethos has been solidly British, which has meant that sometimes we have to make do with the levels that we are at in this country over something that may be more ethical but have to be shipped a very long way to be made.

I’m always surprised by how early people up north go home. We’re here in London working away into the evening but you’re lucky to get a phone answered in a mill after 4 or 5!

4) What are the biggest challenges of sticking to your green credentials?

Creating a product that is sellable to the major retailers with expensive UK handmade overheads is a massive challenge every day. Fighting to pay the knitters a fair wage and upfront, buying UK made fine fibres, using the postal system with its escalating costs and mostly finding large scale dyers in the UK are the main challenges.

I am yet to find anyone who can do natural dying for a sellable price. Since we don’t cut corners anywhere in production, the best solution I have found so far is a dye house that uses recycled water and no harmful fixatives, but I am always on the lookout for more ecological solutions.

5) Any tips on the best ways to communicate the ethos of The North Circular, how do you get uninterested or uninformed customers on board?

We’ve created a comic, which we attach to every product, that concisely explains the ethical story in a fun and catchy way.

6) What do you think makes The North Circular most successful?

We are understandable. You can give a one paragraph explanation of what you do and have all the key points highlighted in someones mind – the parts of the story that catch their attention are all things they can relate to – the grannies that knit, our local production, that everything is handmade, the sheep we use… that grimy road they call The North Circular!

7) What needs to happen for sustainable, ethical fashion to be the obvious choice or even the norm across the mainstream fashion industry?

How organic is labeled – it has to stand out!

The sustainable should become the way to do things and the less sustainable highlighted for customers – they can choose which one, but nothing is simple and one persons value system is not the same as another, so really transparency is the key.

8) Any words of wisdom for ethical brands and new start-ups? And for established brands looking to add a sustainable element to their business, what can they learn from The North Circular?

Start-ups need to really believe in what they are doing, as they will jump through hoops of fire to be tested on their beliefs.

And larger companies can just start now – in small ways to make changes to their systems that are already in place. They have to believe that their small changes will make a big difference, as a giant company’s doing something even small will effect huge change.

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