Frustration with collapsing bean poles drove a Dartmoor gardener to look for a more robust and sustainable alternative. Kim Stead found the answer lying with the sheep that graze the moorland around her.

With an acre of land on seven slopes, Kim’s garden had to face everything that the Dartmoor weather could throw at it. She was getting completely fed up with bean poles collapsing mid-season because the jute garden twine failed – leaving her beans literally blowing in the wind – when she asked a farmer friend how he coped with the problem. The answer? “I use the wool from my sheep.”

Kim says: “I assumed that the wool would need spinning and knew nothing about this but I had a friend who kept Whiteface Dartmoor and she suggested that I visit Coldharbour Mill in Cullompton where I could learn about wool processes. I came back well and truly converted and have been totally enthralled by wool ever since.”

Garden twine from wool With what she had learned, Kim came up with the idea for Twool – garden twine made from wool. She says: “Garden twine is to the gardener what salt and pepper are to a cook; we use it all the time but give very little thought to where it has come from. The UK imports around four thousand tonnes of jute into the country every year from Asia and with 27 million potential gardeners in the UK, this is a massive environmental footprint. British wool, on the other hand, is an underused resource here in the UK: we grow it well, it is renewable, strong and durable and, as a natural product, it releases nitrogen as it biodegrades! What’s not to love about that!”

On the doorstep

Finding suitable fleece to work with was not a problem – it was on Kim’s doorstep: “The qualities of Whiteface Dartmoor wool are perfect for our product range and championing one of Britain’s ancient native breeds is important for our history, heritage and the future of the breed. We collect wool clip annually from our small producers here on Dartmoor providing a route to market for their wool, as well as purchasing through British Wool.”

Not so easy was finding suitable processing facilities. Although living in an area that once had wool at the centre of its economy, Kim found early on that there is very little infrastructure left in the UK to support the sort of venture she was setting up. Coldharbour Mill, for example, operated as a woollen mill from 1799 and was one of the largest textile businesses in the country, but its commercial life is long past and today it is a working museum.

Kim says: “Developing the product was challenging, we had the wool but finding the processes to manufacture it here in the UK was the difficult part. We have lost so much of our textile industry, but the heart of of it still remains in Yorkshire. I would have loved to have processed our wool locally, but I can say it is going to UK heritage mills.” 

Commercial challenges

Processing issues aside, Kim had to face the challenges of developing a commercial product. She says: “I wanted to be able to use fleece in bulk but it has taken eight years to get to where we are now and involved a lot of investment. With full product provenance from sheep to finished product, we are now processing around 7 tonnes a year. Initially Twool was a premium product produced in small batches, but over the years, with economies of scale and product development, we are now able to offer a competitive British quality product range from garden twine to woolly bags, dog leads and hats.”

Significant milestones include a project launched by Waitrose in 2015 which saw 10,000 Twool shopping bags being sold over four years, and more recently Kim has been approached by a major garden centre operator. This has, however, meant additional outlay for her business since the garden centres look for merchandising displays – and expect the supplier to fund them. Kim has also supplied mini-spools of Twool to the National Trust for its “50 things to do before you’re 11¾” campaign.

Kim says: “It has been a lot of hard work and graft but our core aim has been to promote the breed and its attributes with the ultimate goal of seeing its wool used in bulk. My ambition now would be to see the business being moved on to a bigger scale.”