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Top 25 Art Blog - Creative Tourist

An interview with Anna Felton of Monkstone Knitwear, created with wool from sheep who live on Trevayne Farm in Wales

Abi Renshaw talks to Anna Felton of Monkstone Knitwear, purveyors of the finest designer hand knits, created with love on a sustainable farm in Wales. It doesn't get much better than this...

Written by Abi Renshaw

Monkstone Knitwear Stripe Sweater by Stephanie Brown (FAIIINT)
Monkstone Knitwear Stripe Sweater by Stephanie Brown (FAIIINT).

With the mild Autumn being over, the weatherman now talks of snow. Panic! Wondering what wardrobe essentials can help fight the impending chill? We talk to new label, Monkstone Knitwear, about the wool process, sheering the flock and permaculture from her partners beautiful Pembrokeshire farm.

Monkstone knitwear sheep by Alex Clunie
Monkstone knitwear sheep by Alex Clunie.

Can I just say Anna, what a glorious farm this is. You must find it so difficult to work when you have this for a view!
It’s a perk of the job that’s for sure. Trevayne Farm is a beautiful setting for the brand, I’m very lucky to be based here.

Monkstone Workman Jumper
Monkstone Workman Jumper.

You’re in your first year of business and it’s all got off to a flying start! How did the idea for your company, Monkstone Knitwear, come to you? Did you just decide one day or more a life-long dream?
Well knitwear has always been a passion of mine. However the platform of the farm really gave me a kick start. It allowed me to be creative again. I feel inspired in a very beautiful space. 

Monkstone point

What about the name, why Monkstone?
The name comes from Monkstone Point, the beautiful beach you can only access from the farm yard. You have to walk through a wood and down many many steps. It’s a real hidden beauty of the Pembrokeshire coastline. Also when you register a flock, you have to name them. It seemed natural to be proud of the farm, the area and our surroundings. 
 

Monkstone Knitwear by Vicky Smith
Monkstone Knitwear by Vicky Smith.

How long have you officially been trading? Nice logo by the way. Especially your Christmas variation!
I am in my fifth month now. I can’t believe how quickly it’s gone. I worked with Luke James closely on the branding as he totally got what I wanted to achieve. Stylish and classic for products that last. We are all about designing locally and made to order.

Monkstone studio by Janneke de Jong
Monkstone studio by Janneke de Jong.

Your studio looks ever so snug with the fire and kettle on the stove. Oh, and the four cats. I believe this was built for you?
It was the old reception for the farm and holiday park here at Trevayne. However it was empty for some time and so making it useful again was great. It does get cold and windy in Wales, we worked very hard on making it a lovely studio, wool showroom and warm for the wool to be safe in.  

Monkstone Legwarmers
Monkstone Legwarmers.

You live and work in the same place: is this a pleasure or a challenge? Like many freelancers discover, working where you live and vice versa can be more than tough. How do you stay focused and are you able to switch off?
Guilty! I do probably work longer hours than if I was to commute to somewhere. It’s an interesting process when you work where you live. It is hard to shut off as you can always be working for longer. However, the beauty of the place means fresh air is always available. The farm team are an amazing support and having Rich Reed, the farmer and co-founder, as a sounding board really helps. I also run Dewberry PR from my studio. This is my agency where I look after other Welsh companies true to my heart like Huit Denim, fforest and the Do Lectures. My week is very much based on the different clients needs and then Monkstone is my time for fun!
 
Monkstone Knitwear lookbook
Quite the working week! I bet you put many of us to shame. Monkstone can boast that it is made to order, from right here in the UK, I hear.
Yes. We are bespoke and the whole process is logged. We are not a high street brand and never will be, however we are now stocked by two shops – Damson and Slate in Wales and Luna & Curious in Shoreditch, London. The stockist section is growing. Our process is important as people want to buy products that last. We use the method of permaculture on the farm and the knitwear really fits with this.

Monkstone Knitwear lookbook
Monkstone Knitwear lookbook trevayne
Perma what? You best give us some insight into permaculture.
The wool is a by product of our sheep, much like the lamb, beef and crops produced at Trevayne. These elements have a symbiotic link with one another within the farm system. From livestock, grassland and habitat, and most importantly, the soil. As the system evolves, (which takes time) the dependency for inputs such as machinery, chemicals, fuels etc. is greatly reduced, moving ever nearer towards a better farming system. Nature holds the answer.

Monkstone Wool by Elsabe Milandri
Monkstone Wool by Elsabe Milandri.

Staying local must be very important to you. Is being sustainable just as important?
Yes absolutely. Wool is a great renewable fibre source and so good for the environment. I think there is a whole re-education needed about manufacturing in the UK and being sustainable. I try my hardest to achieve this. I am learning all the time how to make things better.

Monkstone work jumper
Monkstone work jumper.

Your process intrigues me. Once it’s left the sheeps’ back to being on ours, what’s the middle section?

The sheep shearing is a yearly process, or twice, if the lambs wool is long enough. We then take the wool to be spun and washed. This bit takes time. We wait up to 3 months! The wool comes back in two formats. For machine, it is oiled on cone or for the hand knitters, washed on cone. We then divided the wool into styles and send it to either the Welsh factory, just 42 miles away, or to my hand makers. 

Mountain Sheep by Elsabe Milandri
Mountain Sheep by Elsabe Milandri.
 
Sounds like you’ve had plenty to learn about sheep and wool alone. Is your aim to sheer the flock yourself?
I am learning to shear, but it is very hard and the sheep are tough! I need more muscles, but I’m helping shear our flock with the locals. I have learnt the whole sheep cycle from herding, to washing, to care, to lambing. They are amazing animals (and mothers) with lots of character and they love getting stuck in things!
 

Monkstone cable knit tea cosy
Monkstone cable knit tea cosy.

Getting stuck, I can imagine! So what sheep do you have on the farm?
Our flock consists of two breeds. The pedigree Black Welsh Mountains (ideal to the farms developing system) are a hardy breed with durable warm wool. They have good resistance to the elements and diseases. They share pasture easily with our cattle and demand less with regards to additional winter feed, housing and unnecessary management. Our other breed is the Dorsets. Smaller in numbers on the farm but larger in size and personality. These sheep are a very adaptable breed. Their big fleeces produce excellent wool, and have the ability to produce three lambs within a two year period. We have a number of coloured ewes. For wool production, these colours are highly desirable and the process of colouring the wool is not required.

Sounds like you need to pick carefully. Do you have plans to get other breeds and grow the flock?

The Dorsets have a friendly and inquisitive nature, which has a positive effect on the Black Welsh Mountains. The flock as a whole is very approachable and manageable out in the field. I plan to get at least another 80 sheep. A mixture of breeds for wool variation. It excites me that I design to what materials I have. Many do this the other way around. However, growing the flock brings more responsibility. They will need more looking after, extra shelters built and grooming needs to be factored in. If you pay attention to the animals’ welfare, this shows in the standard of the wool. So I make sure my flock live a pretty splendid life on the farm.

Monkstone lookbook
As do you no doubt. I can feel myself relaxing just talking to you with this view. At what stage do you design your collection? Can you design far in advance?
Once we have sheared in Spring, I can design accordingly, based around the amount of fleece we get per breed. We divide the wool into kilos. We tend to get 5-8 kilos per sheep. Our black ram Rambo (I think he’s proud of this name!) had a fleece of 7 kilos. As wool is a natural product, it acclimatises well to different temperatures. When worn, the fibre adapts to suit your body shape. Plus, you shouldn’t have to wash it as much due to it being natural. We’re proud to be completely natural. 

Your first collection is A/W 2011. When it’s gone it’s gone, is that right? Do we have to wait until Autumn for your second collection?
There will be a waiting list on styles we design ready for next season and then the updates from this years yarn. But yes, when it’s gone it’s gone! We will have one men’s style and two for women for S/S 2012 then a full collection again for A/W 2012.  
 

Monkstone striped jumper
Monkstone striped jumper.

I hear you have quite the collective here in Pembrokeshire. What friends have been key to Monkstone?
I have a great network for farm help and advice. The local farmers are always dropping off the wool they don’t need. I am working on creating the Monkstone Project where I offer those farmers a shearing service and in return, they get a good percentage based on the amount spun and washed that can be used. I hope it will encourage them to consider the sheeps’ welfare as this will result in better quality wool. 

The Monkstone Project sounds like a great idea! Did you set yourself goals to achieve before the new year?
I knew starting a business was going to be tough, so breaking even takes time. I just wanted to sell something to a stranger! Which I have done. I have been very fortunate with my online shop. I have a great web designer, Jon Heslop, to thank and I didn’t realise the audience I could have with being online. I’ve really enjoyed setting up my Twitter account and Facebook page. Both of which are essential. Now I’m sending out newsletters for my customers to get to know us at Monkstone. It’s been wonderful for me to see my idea become a company.

Monkstone Knitwear lookbook
Online can really make a company expand at quite a rate. I really love how romantic your photoshoot feels. And you’ll make time to relax next year?
I’ll try! I have two collections to get underway though! There are many animals on the farm, so I take time out visiting them. Oh, and I do a spot of horse riding to blow away the cob webs. Peggy is our latest addition. You always need to keep a clear head to make important decisions.

Yes indeedy! Well, I’ll let you go off and feed your flock, but have a very happy Christmas and new year Anna. I think you should have an extra glass of champers at the stroke of midnight. Hope to visit you again to talk about your second collection. Can I ride your horse Peggy now?

And for all knitwear lovers we have just heard news of a mega yard sale on the Monkstone Knitwear website: this Sunday 18th December only.

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