The restrictions placed on everyday life by Covid 19 have caused many people to re-evaluate the way they live their lives. For two RBST members in Lancashire, this has resulted in an enterprise based on a combination of years of friendship and mutual support and a shared love of crafting and wool. Behind the name – Mountain Croft Living Fleeces – there is also a mission to see wool given the respect it deserves.

As well as many years of friendship, Claire Milligan and Charlotte Duerden share a background in farming. Although her main job is in the 100-year old family coal and stoves business, with her husband Claire farms Croft House Farm at Roughlee in East Lancashire where they keep Derbyshire Gristone sheep, Irish Moiled cattle and a menagerie of other animals, including a ‘talking’ turkey. Charlotte is married to a farmer and, together with their children, they farm the family’s Mountain Farm at Blacko where they run a native cross suckler herd and a large flock of commercial mules plus Longhorn cattle.

Both Charlotte and Claire have always loved crafting and had done a number of classes together. As well as farming, Charlotte has spent 20 years working part time as a nursery nurse but was feeling ready for a change. She says: “Because it felt that there was no normal any more, I wanted to do something different and we had always said that one day we would have our own business.”

For Claire, working with wool is second nature as her mother spins, knits and makes lace. She says: “Over the years, Charlotte and I have talked about doing something that was more than just a hobby, but the time was never right. The restrictions imposed by Covid gave us the chance to slow down, think and decide what we really wanted to do with our lives.”

Another motivation was seeing reports on the additional impact Covid was having on the market for fleeces, as Claire explains: “Fleeces were being thrown away or burnt because there was no market for them, which is criminal. England was built on the wealth from the wool trade and now we are throwing it away! Farmers need to get value from all of the time and effort they put into raising their sheep and we thought there was a way we could make at least a small change to the way sheep are perceived.

“I like to learn about things and get into the science and technology behind them and I’d heard about the idea of living fleece rugs, so spent a couple of weeks playing around with the idea. Doing my research, I came across a lady known as the Wild Wool Shepherdess and when we met her, we were really inspired by her approach to the ethics of farming and nature.”

For Charlotte, there was another motivation for building a business on wool: “In 2001, we lost all of our stock to Foot & Mouth and over the years there have been a lot of down times – there can be a lot of negativity in farming. When Claire started looking at the possibilities of working with wool, I saw an opportunity to find my own way of helping our farm. I wanted to do something positive and let my husband see that his wool had some value – it was my way of feeling that I was supporting him and helping the farm.”

So was born Mountain Croft Living Fleeces Rugs. Living fleece rugs – also known as vegetarian rugs – are made solely from the fleece with the ‘skin’ made by wet felting rovings to make a wool backing to the cut side of the fleece. It’s a labour of love, with each rug taking a day to wet felt, two days for drying and a day to brush out.

Claire says: “We started off by making some rugs and then set up a Facebook page. We converted a couple of stables into workshops and printed some leaflets which Charlotte’s son who is a shearer and her soon-to-be son-in-law, an auctioneer – helped spread around. Word got round in our local farming community that ‘Claire and Charlotte are at it again’ and we started to get interest. Our first sales all came from word of mouth.”

The two only really discovered that they had found a niche in the market when, “in a moment of madness” they took a stand at a local home décor and interiors show. Charlotte explains: “Our original idea was to do some agricultural shows for a day out, but as these were all cancelled, this was our only option. We hadn’t a clue what to expect, but it was a totally different audience and we were amazed at the reaction. A lot of people we spoke to hadn’t really taken on board that a traditional sheepskin rug actually involves the skin from the sheep as well as the wool and they loved the idea that with our rugs, the sheep ‘donate’ the wool and then are back grazing the fields.”

Claire and Charlotte took “quite a lot” of rugs to the show and thought that if they sold five or six, they would be doing well. In fact, they sold over 100. To produce the rugs, they use fleeces from their own sheep or will handle commissions from customers who want something made from their own fleeces. They also buy in fleeces from other breeders, quite a few of them raising rare breeds. Claire says: “We have one friend, Clare Shevelan, who keeps the Bouldsworth flock of Hebrideans, whose fleeces make stunning rugs. These give value back to Clare and make her flock more sustainable. The money she makes goes back into the flock and helps ensure that important genetics are preserved.”

Looking at the economics of what the Mountain Croft approach can achieve for breeders, Claire gives the following example: “If a farmer has one ewe that produces two lambs, those lambs might fetch around £170 for the two at market, with £2 for the fleece, if you are lucky. With my rare breed Gritstones, I could have one ewe producing two lambs with the meat going into meat boxes and the fleece becoming a rug and make £480. For rare breeds, in particular, that is real value and makes keeping them financially worthwhile.”

In addition to the living fleece rugs, Claire and Charlotte also make woven rugs, seat covers, cushions and other home products using the peg-loom technique. Any fleece that doesn’t make the grade goes to Halifax Spinning Wool to be turned into knitting wool and wool from Charlotte’s mules comes back as rovings. Mountain Croft products are currently sold via Facebook and Etsy, with a website being developed. With demand outstripping supply in the run up to Christmas, Claire and Charlotte worked to commission only.

Mountain Croft was set up as a two-woman business and Claire and Charlotte intend for it to stay that way. Claire says: “We don’t want to get bigger - we want to continue having fun – but at the same time, we want to show people that there are alternative ways of making money on family farms. And we want people to value wool more. We know we are not going to change the world, but if we can influence other people to do the same sort of thing, or to buy at least one wool product, these small changes can make bigger changes happen.”

You can follow Mountain Croft Living Fleeces or contact Claire via [email protected] talktalk.net