Shopping: A smart move with a timeless woollen classic

Rose Rainey left London's fashion world to find success designing cardigans in Shropshire

The cardigan is one of fashion's great perennials. Obviously, there are versions of the versatile knitted jacket which are more or less fashionable than others (and the same can also be said of the manner in which it is worn).

But, in essence, the cardigan changes very little from season to season, year to year: it's knitted, has buttons, and is either long or short, with a round or a v-neck.

This year the cardigan is more popular than ever, and everyone from Voyage (velvet-trimmed and very expensive), to Benetton (comes in every colour under the sun) is doing them. But, of all the styles and labels available on the high street and beyond, it is Rose Rainey's For Smart Walks hand- knitted 1940s throwback, that the cardigan cognoscenti want.

The Smart Walks cardigan is simple, and very flattering: slightly nipped- in at the waist, it is ribbed with slim sleeves, subtly defined shoulders and comes in almost any colour you want with a contrasting panel around the neck and edges. "Because it's ribbed, it suits any shape," explains Rainey.

"There is only one size and this fits anyone from an 8 to a 14. Obviously, I can make them bigger if people want, but ribbed wool is so springy it just seems to mould around people." One customer, concerned about size, confided to Rainey that she had "a huge bosom". Rainey told her not to worry. "I said, `All you need is a nice black bra and you'll look fantastic'. She ordered two!"

Although only launched eight months ago at a party in a friend's flat, interest in Rainey's designs has been such that she's now brought out a mail order catalogue. Customers such as Jade Jagger and Courtney Love are happy waiting up to a month to get their hands on their very own Rose Rainey.

"People don't seem to mind. I pack everything up myself - in a smart box with tissue - and I think sometimes people forget it's on its way and then they get a lovely surprise when it arrives in the post."

The success of Rainey's fledgling business is not surprising when you see the cardigans (each one is unique: beautifully made by hand in 100 per cent pure new wool, with incredible attention to detail and costs between pounds 75 and pounds 85), but does seem nothing short of miraculous when you discover that soon after the launch she took to the road in a horse- drawn gypsy caravan with her partner Brad and their son Tyso.

"It was quite hard running the business from the road," she admits. "We'd have to stop at phone boxes so I could ring home, pick up orders, then call through to the knitters and finally phone the clients to confirm everything. In the end, we sold another cart we had and bought a laptop to help keep track of things."

Their current wagon, with its wonderfully gaudy gold, pink and red interior and tiny wood-burning stove is their second of the season. "We set off in April and travelled from Shropshire, covering around 10 miles a day. And in Gloucestershire we ended up selling the wagon. We'd made camp in someone's orchard and a passer-by fell in love with it."

Wagon number two, which was built in 1909, is apparently much better. It's bigger - although it feels minute - with more storage space. At the moment, it is settled under an old oak tree outside Rainey's mother's house in Shropshire, while the couple look for a more permanent home.

But even though the business now demands a larger base, they won't give up life on the road altogether. After all, it was a caravan journey that brought about Rainey's career change from fashion stylist to knitwear designer.

Having spent a summer on the road with Brad, she decided it was time to leave London and return to Shropshire. "I'd been working as a fashion stylist for magazines such as i-D and The Face, and I realised I'd grown tired of the fashion scene. I felt that having grown up in the country, I'd like to return to the country." The big question was how.

"Brad would be fine because he makes wagons, but I knew I had to find something that I could do out here." Knitwear, although Rainey can't knit, was the answer.

"I'd found all these wonderful old 1940s knitting patterns and I thought it would be nice to do something with them." A life-long love of clothes, and jumpers in particular, made the idea of producing her own range of designs particularly appealing. "I bought lots of wool and advertised for knitters," she says, "and all these lovely ladies responded.

"Because I can't knit, and I don't know any of the `language', I found it really exciting when I saw that I could come up with designs, and that it was possible to find knitters who would create them from my drawings. Now, when I'm travelling, I lie and dream of cardigans." The caravan seems to be a rich source of inspiration. A range of brightly coloured stripy jumpers, called Stripy Sensation, owe their palette to the caravan's exotic interior.

All Rainey's knitters are local, and many have grandchildren who've grown "far too cool" to want anything knitted for them by their grandmothers. "They had no one to knit for, so they were really glad to have a reason to knit! They've also got lots of ideas, and every now and then I get these surprise packages from them."

She no longer pays any attention to fashion, she says. "I'm interested in producing timeless, quality designs. I like the idea of my cardigans becoming old friends, that they are delicious to put on and will last forever." To concern herself too much with the swings and roundabouts of a seasonal collection would be to sell herself and her customers short.

"I found it rather a relief to get away from the whole fashion scene. I do think there are designers who create brilliant things, people like Galliano and so on. But the whole life that goes with it, all that back stage cattiness and competitive spirit, can take away from the beauty of the clothes."

Instead of the catwalk, it is Rainey's clients who provide the inspiration. "Seeing people in my clothes at the show I had was great. The body warmth breathed life into them! Also customers call and ask for different collars, or perhaps larger pockets, and all of this gives me ideas."

Rainey will soon be showing two new lines which came directly from customer requests. One is the men's version of the Smart Walks cardigan, which her cousin pleaded with her to produce, and the other is a Fair Isle collection.

"A woman asked if I could make Fair Isle sweaters for her five children, and so I looked into it. And while researching patterns in vintage magazines, I came across an old ad for a wool company and I've found that they're still going strong, so they are going to supply the wool."

Although customers choose from a list of styles and colours, details such as buttons are decided by Rainey. "I love buttons and I've got jars and jars of them which I've collected from markets and haberdashers. If someone says they want something sparkly, I'll see what I can find, but usually it's a surprise when the cardigan arrives."

One lucky customer ordered a cardigan at the first show, and her friend later mentioned her passion for roses to Rainey who made a point of tracking down some pretty rose buttons. "She was so delighted she ordered another one for her daughter."

Rainey is currently planning another show, the date of which has yet to be confirmed, and at this she will launch her Cat Hats (fabulous Mrs Mop-style knitted head scarves with pointy ears), the male version of the Smart Walks cardigan and a knitted dressing gown which she describes as the "wedding dress" of the show.

In the meantime the catalogue is doing well and the Smart Walk Cardigan remains as popular as ever. As Rainey says: "They are timeless: people can choose their own colours and stamp each design with their own identity."

Rose Rainey can be contacted on: 01691 680 447. Women's cardigans are from pounds 75 to pounds 85; children's knitwear is available from pounds 20 to pounds 35; men's sweaters start at pounds 55. Bradford Steer makes traditional wagons to order, and can be contacted on the same number

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