I was recently contacted by new British knitwear brand Ally Bee and couldn’t resist the chance to photograph the gorgeous knits made from British alpaca yarn (sustainable with low impact on the environment, no lanolin and less pilling!). And then I thought I’d find out more about the lady behind the label, former lawyer Alison Baker…
What inspired the leap from lawyer to knitwear designer?
I’d been working in intellectual property in the media – interesting work but only ever one small part in a big machine. I wanted to be more in control of the outcome of my work – and my time – and to make something tangible and useful.
I love fashion and 2 years ago when I was between work contracts an opportunity came along for me to sell alpaca knitwear for a Peruvian company. I fell in love with this luxury yarn but it got me thinking about how hard it was to find beautiful knitwear made from locally sourced fibre in the UK. There was no British alpaca in UK boutiques, and I found only Margaret Howell using any British fleece wool in ready-to-wear. I was suddenly obsessed with working out how to bring together all the elements needed to make ready-to-wear knitwear from the point of the raw British fleece, and in a massive leap of faith I said no to job offers in law to make Ally Bee happen. I was determined to make a beautiful sweater to hang proud in a wardrobe alongside imported – and near ubiquitous – cashmere and merino. The Ally Bee collection is the beautiful thing I’d been wanting to make for so long, and embraces an ethos of sustainability which has been on my mind for many years. The career path I’d been looking for that had seemed so intangible has now become tangible.
How are you finding working for yourself?
Setting up any business is a massive venture, not to be underestimated, but it has given me the potential to set my own hours, goals and direction. And no more awful commute into the City! I can spend more time with my kids and I get to see the daylight and I have met wonderful people who have become food friends and visited new places (alpaca farms and spinning mills included) as I set the course for my business. I’ve been very fortunate to have had a fashion business mentor whose advice I have found invaluable.
On the down side, working for oneself is a solitary journey at times, requiring self-discipline and level-headedness on a roller-caster of ups and downs. You have to be a good listener but you quickly get savvy about whose advice you choose to take. It’s been so important for me to meet others taking a similar journey – I am not alone after all. Only start a business if you can live by the mantra: ‘Do something that scares you every day’. And right now a few more hours in the day would be appreciated!
What is so special about the British alpaca wool for you?
British alpaca fleece is an annually renewable resource from an animal which has a low impact on the British landscape – usually kept in small flocks on smallholdings – and animal welfare is integral to raising these animals. When the best part of the fleece is collected and spun with expertise, it can produce the perfect luxury yarn – local known provenance, sustainable, and produced with animal welfare as a top priority.
And what is so special about alpaca, which many people do not know, is that if the long part of the fleece – which is what is used in Ally Bee yarns – is spun, it does not pill excessively like you often find with merino and so often cashmere. And because it is a hollow fibre, it contracts in the cold to keep you warm, and expands in the heat to allow for breathability. And one further point – it is lanolin free!
What do you think women are after in their knitwear?
What women are looking for in knitwear is dependability, versatility and an understated style. Knitwear you can wear without a second thought. At the heart of it a knitted sweater will last in a wardrobe because it is loved as a versatile essential basic – rather than an architectural or signature piece. And women are tired of buying knitwear that looks ragged after only a couple of wears. We all know a cheap knit is usually a false economy. She wants knitwear to keep its shape, in colours that work from one season to the next, and to blend effortlessly with a statement coat, trusty leather or denim jacket.
Do you have a current favourite piece or yarn from the colleciton and why?
The Grey Marl Snood and Bramble Knit jumper are my favourites right now. I wore these together to fly the flag for British wool on the Wool Ride in London two weeks ago – Ally Bee is officially affiliated the Campaign for Wool. I would not normally wear a wool jumper on a bike ride, but now I am a convert – it was so soft against the skin, even as the morning got warmer because the yarn is naturally breathable and knitted in a long wool with a special softness not normally associated with British wool. And the Snood – knitted in a blend of British alpaca and long wool – is so snuggly, light and easy to wear, either loose or wrapped up tight for colder days.
Apart from using sustainable yarn, do you take other measures to make your business sustainable & eco-friendly?
All manufacturing of Ally Bee products is within the UK, making all production air-mile free. Ally Bee alpaca and cream coloured wool is entirely natural – no dyes are used. The 3 colours in the AW14 collection that are dyed are dyed in the Scottish Borders under strict local and EU environmental regulations. Ally Bee keeps plastic consumption and print communication to a minimum – electronic media is a wonderful thing – and recyclables are used wherever possible. Each AW14 Ally Bee purchase is presented in an organic draw-string cotton bag, perfect for storing knitwear, shoes, make-up – you choose. I am currently researching dry cleaners in the UK who use wet-cleaning methods which is more environmentally friendly than traditional dry-cleaning so that I can keep my customers informed on their choices – watch this space.
And finally, where can we buy Ally Bee?
Ally Bee is currently available exclusively at ally-bee.com.