Thankfully it’s a warm, sunny morning at Toft alpaca farm, as the team has been hard at work since 7am. It’s late May 2015 and shearing week, and with a herd of 200 alpacas that means early starts!
“I’m usually up at 6am as I spend an hour on our social media sites before my toddler, Edward, wakes up,” says Kerry Lord, owner and creative director of luxury yarn brand Toft.
The farm is owned by her parents, Rob and Shirley Bettinson, who began breeding pedigree alpacas when Kerry was 11 years old. The yarn brand, studio and café are Kerry’s creations.
After breakfast with her son and a couple of fortifying cups of coffee, Kerry drops Edward, two, at nursery then checks her list of tasks for the day ahead.
“I like everyone in the business to get involved in shearing week, as I think it’s really important that we all understand where our yarn comes from,” says Kerry. “Now that we have the yarn store, knitting and crochet workshops and café we meet our customers every day and need to be able to answer any questions.”
All hands on deck
This morning it’s the last day of shearing week and expert alpaca shearer Ben Wheeler has come to shear the remaining 40 alpacas. “Ben is one of the best, he shears each alpaca in around six minutes!” says Kerry.
It’s a dusty, noisy job and the buzz of the shears can be heard across the nearby paddocks, where two of the newest additions to the alpaca herd are grazing peacefully with their mothers. May is also birthing time.
While the shearing is underway, Kerry checks her phone. She manages all of the company’s Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram feeds personally.
“I also check our stock levels and sales so that I can update the team if anything is sold out,” says Kerry. “9am each morning is our usual meeting time, when we go through our agendas for the day.”
The ultimate multi-tasker, the success of the Toft brand is a testament to Kerry’s hard work. Surprisingly though, starting her own business was never something Kerry planned to do.
“When I came home in 2007 after completing my English degree, my mum and dad had just finished shearing the herd, which was around 100 back then,” she says. “I looked at this great pile of fleeces and asked, ‘What are you going to do with them?’”
In response, Kerry’s parents asked her if she’d find a buyer. “I went online and made a few calls expecting to find a fleece merchant as you would for sheep but there was no one,” she says. “So then I started investigating the next stage; thinking if we turned the fleeces into yarn would there be a buyer out there?”
But again, Kerry found none. “That’s when I thought maybe I should do it myself,” Kerry says. One of the first things she did was learn how to knit. “I knew I needed to understand how the yarn would be used if I was going to make a success of the idea.”
Kerry then did an internship at two mills, learning how the fleeces are spun and processed into yarn. “I made the decision early on not to dye the yarn,” says Kerry. “Alpaca fleeces have such a beautiful range of natural colours, from creamy whites to rich browns, that I wanted to create a natural product.”
Eight years on and Kerry’s entrepreneurial spirit has seen that first pile of fleeces grow into a cutting edge yarn company, producing a unique collection of wonderfully soft alpaca yarns and contemporary patterns to complement them, as well as a range of made-to-order garments and crocheted toys.
“It’s been hard work but I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved,” says Kerry. “I was doing three people’s jobs until my son was born and I still work very long hours but I’m trying to find that balance between work and family life.”
Sense of humour essential
Kerry’s dedication is evident. With shearing completed mid-morning, she’s straight onto the next task.
“Each fleece needs to be sorted by hand to check its quality and colour,” Kerry explains, as she places a fleece on a wooden table in the shearing shed and rubs the fibres between her fingers. “A good fleece should be soft and crimpy all over and the fibres must be at least 2 inches in length.” Any bits of fleece not up to standard are sold as stuffing for pillows and duvets so nothing is wasted.
Kerry checks the colours meticulously. It’s vital the yarns are sorted carefully as this is how she is able to create the 10 natural shades in the Toft range.
“It’s not an exact science but you learn with experience,” says Kerry. “It’s the one thing my parents and I disagree on,” she laughs. “Dad often does an initial sort but I like to do it myself. Getting the brown shades right is the trickiest.”
After two hours of grading, Kerry is covered in fluff and there are three more bags ready to go to the mill. In three months’ time these fleeces will be part of this year’s crop of Fudge and Chestnut DK.
“Everyone looks at me a bit funny when I go to pick up Edward from nursery like this,” Kerry jokes, as she brushes off as many of the fibres as she can.
Nurturing new talent
Lunch in the café with her mum and dad is a chance to catch up on business rather than take a breather! Then, while this afternoon’s crochet workshop is set up in the studio (the team teach more than 80 people a week to knit and crochet), Kerry heads to her on-site office to talk to her suppliers and retailers.
“I check on production daily,“ says Kerry. “I do a lot of number crunching actually!”
Kerry then sits down with the two textile degree students spending a year-long internship at Toft. Liz and Petra are each creating a 10-piece pattern collection, released as part of Toft’s designs for 2015.
“Each year we create a 60-piece collection, so I like to give our interns the chance to work on every part of the process, from first sketches to pattern testing,” says Kerry. “It’s a great way to give young designers a chance and introduce new talent to the industry.” Kerry also designs part of the collection herself.
“Our garments really represent me as a knitter,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of spare time so our most complex pieces can be knitted in about 20 hours but most designs can be completed in under five.”
With her uber cool cropped blonde hair and tailored shirt and trousers, it’s clear that Kerry’s own style is reflected in the simple, easy-to-wear elegance of the garments she creates.
“I do all my sketches in the evenings, so I carry a set of notebooks in my bag to jot down my ideas,” she says. This year Kerry has also collaborated with top knitwear designer Jo Storie to create a 10-piece capsule collection. “I love working with other designers, especially technical knitters like Jo, as she has taken our yarn in a completely new and beautiful direction.”
Kerry has also found time to design a set of 40 adorable crocheted bird patterns for her new book, Edward’s Menagerie – Birds. To accompany the book, she is launching her first collection of six bright yarn colours; part of Toft’s range of sheep’s wool yarns launched 18 months ago.
For the love of it
After a phonecall with her publisher to organise her book launch, Kerry heads off to collect Edward from nursery and enjoy some family time with her son and “very tolerant and long-suffering” husband, Doug, at their home a few miles from the farm.
That’s not to say that Kerry’s working day is over. Once her son is in bed, Kerry is soon back to work sewing up the toy samples for her new collection. After that, there’s just enough time to write the Toft newsletter before Kerry finally heads off to bed.
“People sometimes ask me why yarn is so expensive,” Kerry muses. “But when you look at what goes into creating a ball of yarn – feeding the alpacas for a year, shearing and grading the fleeces, spinning the yarn, then the balling and delivery, lots of which is done by hand, it isn’t really. It’s hard work, but I feel very lucky to be involved in creating a wonderful, natural product that gives pleasure to so many people.”