When 38-year-old Beate Kubitz ditched the London rat race and moved to Cumbria in 2002, she arrived just in time to catch the fallout from the worst foot-and-mouth outbreak in years. Like many people who up sticks in search of the good life, she waded right in at the deep end. First, she bought half-a-dozen Angora goats and set them to graze in her three-acre garden in Todmorden on the edge of the Pennines. Then she got herself six Shetland sheep and four Leicester Longwools. She had a vague notion that she wanted to create something ethical, sustainable and fashion-related from their wool, but the reality was that she had a garden overrun with braying livestock and no idea how to look after them.
"There was a bloke at the top of the field whose dad was a farmer, and he sometimes stuck his head over the fence and offered me advice along the lines of, 'You should be doing this now,' and 'Why haven't you done that yet?' I also had a book called Sheep Ailments: Recognition and Treatment by Eddie Straiton, full of appalling drawings and diagrams. I kind of worked it out from that."
Eight years on, Kubitz is an old pro. She now has 50 ewes, due to lamb next week, as well as 30 yearlings. Thankfully, these are no longer rammed into her back garden, but kept in fields rented from a local farmer. (The goats went to a new home.) "It took a while, but now I can do everything to do with the sheep myself," she says. "Anything from trimming their hooves to lambing and baling hay for them in the summer." Last year, she single-handedly sheared more than 70 sheep – averaging, impressively, around a dozen a day.
But for Kubitz, it wasn't just about playing hardy Cumbrian shepherdess. Once the sheep were doing well, she set about creating the other side of her business – a fashion line called Makepiece (tagline "From sheep to chic"). Her plan was simple – to take the fleece from her animals, spin it into wool and turn it into highly fashionable designer knitwear. Provenance has long been an issue for Kubitz. "People are really concerned about where their food comes from," she says, "but when it comes to clothing, few of us seem interested."
Makepiece's first incarnation was as a shop in Todmorden, which Kubitz filled with ethical, British-made clothing and accessories. "There was no business plan. I thought I would see whether it was viable and work out the spreadsheets later. We opened in September; I sincerely thought it would all be over by Christmas."
On the first day of opening, a girl named Nicola Sherlock walked in. "She mentioned that she had just completed a knitwear degree at Nottingham Trent University and moved back to Todmorden, where she grew up, as she wasn't quite sure what to do next. She applied the principles of the Slow Food movement to fashion. It was one of those weird meetings when you don't realise the conversation you have had until afterwards."
Not long after the pair started working together; Kubitz hand-spinning the wool from her sheep, Sherlock turning it into clothing. At first, they made fairly standard knitwear, then one day, Sherlock got a little carried away with her stitching... "We had some boucle yarn and Nicola created a little poncho out of it. It took her ages and was so labour-intensive that we stuck it in the window with a price-tag of £160, hoping it would deter anyone from buying it. Well, someone came straight in and bought it. That was the moment we realised that good design sells and you can be really ethical about it at the same time."
Makepiece now produces two collections a year and has shown at London Fashion Week for the past seven seasons. It is also stocked in outlets all over the country, including the fashionable Eco Age run by Colin Firth's wife in Chiswick. What gives the label its identity is Sherlock's unique stitch designs. Since that moment with the poncho, she has continued to experiment and now uses stitches such as the "foxglove", which makes the fabric hang in deep folds and the "edgeway", which enables her to knit dresses entirely on the bias for a more flattering fit.
And the business has its spreadsheets all worked out as well. "For a medium Shetland sheep, you get around 2kg of fleece," explains Kubitz. "You lose about 40 per cent of that in the spinning process, so you end up with enough yarn to make three to five capes and a couple of sweaters."
Both Kubitz and Sherlock travel the country giving talks and demonstrations about their beautifully streamlined business model. "We just did one to the Shoreditch Sisters, quite possibly the trendiest WI group in the universe." Kubitz also blogs regularly, not just about the fashion side, but the perils of setting off to feed her sheep in the thick snow in an elderly Citroën, as well as documenting the moment she puts Jake, her fine brown ram, in with a field of 51 females.
It is rare to come across someone as well-versed in the vagaries of fashion-speak as they are in the treatment of watery eye syndrome in lambs, but Kubitz has found the perfect symmetry between the worlds of agriculture and fashion. "I've got my dates all worked out," she tells me excitedly, "so that my lambing season doesn't start until April. That way I can get London Fashion Week over and get back up here in plenty of time to pull up my sleeves, get into the fields and help get them out."