Our latest 'Introducing Orkney's Makers' feature focuses on Nancy Fergus and her popular Orkney Tweed business.
How did the business get started?
It almost came about by accident! I got a new flock of Zwartbles sheep for the farm in 2012 and they’re a really dark black in colour. I hadn’t given any thought as to what I’d do with the fleece until a friend from North Ronaldsay got in touch to ask if I had any plans for it. I ended up sending her some fleece and she made some socks out of it. We sold them at a Farm Open Day in Orkney and they were really popular, so next I decided to try blankets. I sent around 600 kilos of wool to Shetland to be processed and we got blankets and four rolls of tweed from that. I got the tweed made into hats and flatcaps and sold nearly a hundred of them at a stall for cruise liner passengers in Kirkwall. That was the lightbulb moment! I ended up selling blankets and lampshades there, then in 2016 took the plunge and opened the shop on Victoria Street.
What came first for you – the sheep or the love of textiles?
It was definitely the sheep. I’m a farmer and have always worked with livestock, so that was the main focus when sheep arrived. I had no background at all in textiles until I bought in the Zwartbles so it has very much been a case of learning on the job. I’ve had to find out about retail as I go and I went to classes which helped increased my confidence. I’ve got such a talented team of makers with me too, they make everything from waistcoats to cushions to furniture, it just couldn’t be done without them.
There aren’t many producers who are involved with the raw material right through to the finished product, as well as the customer-facing part of the business. Is it a challenge for you?
No, I genuinely love it. It has been such an enjoyable experience to see the business evolve, right from the delivery of the flock to what it is now. I’ve always enjoyed the farming element of it as that’s in my blood, and it just adds to it when you know that the fleeces are going to be used to create something special and unique. We have a repeat customer from Norway and when he ordered another sweater from us, we took some photos of the sheep before they were clipped and sent them to him. It really highlighted the provenance of our products and he was delighted to see where his wool came from. It’s such an important part of what we do.
You mentioned you opened the shop in 2016, did that feel like a big step?
It was a fairly sizeable leap. I basically went from manning a stall on the pier to owning and running a shop, with everything that entails. It was a complete step into the unknown. I originally thought I’d be able to do both the stall and shop but it was so busy from the start I knew I had to focus on one outlet. Our range has developed over the years too, from caps to soft furnishings, so we would have needed somewhere to store and display our larger items anyway. Looking back, it just feels like the natural progression.
2020 was a difficult year for all our local producers, have the restrictions affected your own business?
I was planning to employ one or two folk this year to work in the shop but I’ve not been able to do that. At the start of spring, I had a sign on the door saying ‘closed for lambing’ and the shop would always have been closed then, but this year that sign basically stayed up into the summer! It has definitely been quieter without the normal number of visitors Orkney gets, and I’ve just been looking after things myself. We’re working off our current stock too – we haven’t ordered or received any tweed this year – so we’re making the most of what we can. Local folk have been very supportive as always, I don’t think there’s been a day since we reopened when we’ve not had something going out the door. We can only keep our fingers crossed for a more positive 2021.
Looking ahead, do you think there might be an increase in interest in quality materials, and perhaps an appreciation of their real value?
Absolutely, and I think we can see that already. Folk can’t believe the quality of produce available in Orkney, and in our case the fact they can see pictures of the sheep their tweed is coming from is something that always impresses them. People are looking for that local connection and they appreciate quality items, and Orkney has that in spades.
Find out more about Orkney Tweed on Facebook.
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The Promoting Orkney project has been part financed by the Scottish Government and the European Community Orkney LEADER 2014-2020