There can’t be many fashion businesses run from the cab of a tractor, but one woman is doing just that, as Mary-Vere Parr discovers.
Lucy Sheringham has an unusual job title – arable farmer cum fashion designer.
With her father, James, and two full-time employees, the 26-year-old works the family’s 283 ha (700 acre) Corbetts Lodge Farm near Swaffham in Norfolk, and contracts a further three arable farms, totalling 809 ha (2,000 acres).
At the same time, she has set up her own eponymous business designing and selling silk scarves.
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“When we’re really busy on the farm, like in harvest, I sometimes have to deal with orders while corn-carting,” says Lucy. “You’ll see my tractor parked up in the yard while I dash into the office to process an order.
“But most of the time, I am lucky that I can work designing and getting stock ready in the quieter months so I’m ahead of the game for the busy times.”
From corn-carting to exhibitions
Lucy admits that she couldn’t combine the two careers if the family business were a livestock enterprise. But turning her hand to corn-carting in the summer and cultivating in the autumn, she can work the peak periods on the farm and devote the winter to designing her silk scarves, getting stock ready and attending trade shows like Top Drawer at conference centre Olympia London.
These two disparate worlds have always co-existed for Lucy. “Growing up on the farm, I was always interested in fashion and decided to pursue what I loved.
So I did a textiles degree at Loughborough University and then spent a year working in London for designer Jonathan Saunders, milliner Philip Treacy and jeweller Tatty Devine.
Lucy has always been very down-to-earth, as adept at learning how to drive a tractor with her father as running up a hem on a sewing machine with her mother Lynn. “It helps in both jobs to be good with your hands,” she says.
“While working in London, I was back every weekend helping out and having long conversations with my parents about whether I could move back and combine the two careers, farming and fashion.”
Last year, she moved into a farm cottage and set up her studio on the farm.
“The view from my studio is a wood and a field – everything that inspires me. But being a stone’s throw from the farmyard means that if Dad wants me to move a bag of fertiliser or something, I can down tools and pop out.”
“In the fashion world, people are fascinated that I come from a farm and can’t believe that I sit on a tractor.”
Designer and arable farmer Lucy Sheringham
Lucy launched her first collection in July last year, a range of nine silk scarves featuring designs derived from photographs of frozen water taken around the farm.
“I have always taken photographs around the farm, especially at harvest,” she says.
These she reworks on her computer, layering images over each other and adjusting colours to create abstract patterns.
These are digitally printed on to silk rolls at a printer in Middlesex and then cut to size and hemmed by Lucy in her farm studio.
Unique selling point
The first Lucy Sheringham spring-summer collection featured blue and purple designs, each named after a field on Corbetts Lodge Farm: Priory, Western Wells, High View Old Pasture, Bobs Folly, Upper Meadow, Ladylands, Clover and Garden Piece.
“The farm is my inspiration and also, to coin a phrase, my unique selling point,” Lucy says.
“In the fashion world, people are fascinated that I come from a farm and can’t believe that I sit on a tractor,” she laughs.
“They’re a bit surprised, but really interested and keen to find out how it all happens. They never expect that I got that idea while working in a field, but I think that makes me more unique and makes me stand out.
“I am a sociable person so it’s odd that I have chosen to work alone and in farming as it’s one of the loneliest professions,” she says.
I love going to trade fairs and learning from experienced designers there.” She is chuffed, that at Olympia London, stars from TV’s Made in Chelsea tried on her scarves.
“To start with, I was pathetic and took criticism to heart. Now I’ve got tougher and learned to take it on board and move on. But the fashion world is not friendly or polite.”
“But back at home I have to get my head down to get enough stock ready to send out when website orders start coming in and I am busy on the farm.
“My wardrobe has two sides: one side fashionable, the other just jeans, jumpers and the gilet I live in on the farm and in my studio,” she says.
But the farm wins hands down as the better work environment.
“Farming is so much more pleasant and friendly,” Lucy says.
“I have worked alongside – and learned so much from – my Dad and our two farmworkers. That doesn’t happen in the fashion industry. To start with, I was pathetic and took criticism to heart. Now I’ve got tougher and learned to take it on board and move on. But the fashion world is not friendly or polite.”
Lucy is working on her 2015 autumn-winter collection, a shooting-themed, feather-based pattern in bronze, gold and brown to be printed on silk and wool.
She is experimenting with smaller sizes than the 130x130cm silk squares of her first collection, sold for £120 a pop. “With a business start-up, it’s important to respond to what customers are saying,” Lucy says.
“But I think they like the scarves big so they can wear them in their own ways.”
If the business expands, what will she do? “It has the capacity to grow, as has the farm,” Lucy says.
“But I have learned that you have to start with one product and once the orders start to rack up you can start to grow. Getting your name out there is the first challenge.
“In fashion it’s hard to delegate, but if the business does take off I could get a student in to help – lots of people want an internship in the fashion industry.”
But for now, farm work will always have to come first, she insists. “For one thing it funds my business set-up.”
Her father James backs her up. “Most of the year Lucy can work around the farming,” he says. “We couldn’t manage without her and it’s nice to have the new generation coming in and looking through fresh eyes.”
“I used to get odd looks driving a tractor,” Lucy admits. “But I don’t see why people are shocked as more and more women are going into farming. Mine is a strange combination of careers, but I don’t see why I can’t do both. You just have to work very hard.”