Flock to frock – designer style using farm’s own fleece

A farm in Wales is home to a knitwear business with a difference, as Debbie James discovers

Gillian Osband is feeding two molly lambs in a corner of her barn. She is wearing a gorgeous woollen jacket with a matching red beanie – not the overalls more commonly associated with farm work. But when you are a top knitwear designer who runs a 600-acre livestock farm, why not combine the two?

The knitwear Gillian is wearing has its origins on the farm; in particular the pedigree Dorset and Welsh Black Mountain ewes she runs alongside the Welsh Black cattle.

Her range of clothing, which she designs and sells, is made using only fleeces from her sheep. She produces up to 500 designer garments a year, using wool from about a third of her flock.

Gillian insists farming is in her blood. Despite having a city background, she launched her knitwear enterprise soon after moving to Pembrokeshire with her husband two decades ago.

Gillian knitwear 
Gillian’s garments grace catwalks and the rails of exclusive boutiques around the world.
They had no experience of farming, but quickly adapted to the country way of life, successfully running Brechfa Farm, Llanycefn, as a commercial enterprise.

It was Gillian’s practical approach, combined with her creativity, that led her into knitwear design when the wool price collapsed. At the time, the British Wool Marketing Board was offering about 5p/kg. “I just thought: This is silly, we’ll do something with it ourselves,” she recalls.

And so her knitwear business was born. She dispatched the fleeces to the Natural Fibre Company to be spun into wool, and a friend who worked at the then-Department of Trade pointed her in the direction of a potential circle of knitters.

She still drives her Land Rover piled high with fleeces to Lampeter to be spun and then shuttles the yarn to her team of knitters and crocheters in Pembrokeshire.

Gillian’s garments grace catwalks and the rails of exclusive boutiques around the world. Her signature designs are her knee and ankle-length cardigans and jackets, embellished with vintage or horn buttons, which add to their individuality.

“People know I’m always looking for buttons, so I quite often get given them or I find them in antique and charity shops. I like all my garments to have different sets of buttons,” she says.

Gillian also produces crocheted blankets, which can take up to four weeks to make. She has an established group of women who knit and crochet for her. “They all take great pride in what they do and it shows in the quality of their work.”

Not all of her pieces are handmade; some are knitted on machines before being hand-finished. But, because she likes to have interesting stitches, it is a complicated process. “I’m fussy about how the clothes hang,” Gillian admits. “Knitwear has to hang straight and look classy and every piece has got to be worn until it falls to pieces, which is, hopefully, forever.”

Her blankets range in price from £100-120 and the knitted jackets from £450-500.

She describes herself as a naturally visual person. “I was the children’s publisher at Corgi for many years and had a very free hand in what I was able to publish. We published a lot of picture books, so I was communicating with artists. I knew exactly how I wanted something to look. I have a very clear picture in my head of what something should look like, and this is true of my knitwear designs.”

This flair isn’t limited to books and clothing. In Gillian’s hands a piece of rusting farm machinery can be transformed into a beautiful table or a lamp, or indeed more obscure pieces like the lectern she created from an old mill handle found on the farm.

The seed for the furniture business was sown when an oak tree blew down on the farm and Gillian had the timber sawn into planks.

Gillian with teddies 
A farm is the source of creative endeavour for Gillian Osband.
“I didn’t know what to do for the table legs and then a friend who is a scrap dealer produced some old metal machinery parts which were ideal. A local carpenter and a blacksmith, who works on the farm, built the table and things have gone on from there,” she says.

“There are lots of bits of old machinery lying around, especially on farms, just waiting for the scrapman, and some of it is so beautifully made that it would be a shame to destroy it.”

Although beautiful, her furniture is also practical, just like her knitwear, which undergoes rigorous testing in the Pembrokeshire climate.

“I know what I like to wear and I know what looks good and, fortunately, my knitters are able to understand my sketches. We haven’t had one mistake in all the years we have been making clothes.”

The farm has been inspirational and is a constant source of ideas, but Gillian also appreciates the practical side of farming. “When you live in the countryside and you are part of the land, looking after animals and growing crops, you get very possessive about their wellbeing. It is part of my wellbeing, too,” she says.

Find out more at www.gillianosbandknitware.co.uk or by calling 01437 563 470