Sheepskin Worlds Collide
In the winter of 1966, I was born in Butleigh Hospital, Somerset under the maiden name of Ashley. A little earlier Cindi Barry had been born in the same hospital. Our families didn’t know each other, but over 50 years later we found ourselves sitting in the same room discussing our histories and connections.
Moving from Somerset as a young child to St Albans, then to Hampshire, I then bounced around the southeast of England, before, in 2002, finding ‘home’ in Cornwall amongst the sheep on the edge of Bopdmin moor. Soon after, with a young family of our own, my husband Harry and I embarked on creating The Wool Company. Not, perhaps, the most natural of business choices, as neither Harry nor I had ever worked in retail, but we both had a natural inclination towards beautiful quality products, designed to last and made of pure natural fibres.
We launched The Wool Company with our first range of mohair socks, supported by our ‘all-things-mohair’ mentor, the late Marjorie Jarvis, a bubble of endless enthusiasm and energy. Majorie was an outstanding breeder and her flock of award-winning pedigree angora goats were continually winning prizes for their superb fleeces. Occasionally she had angora goat skins that needed to be tanned, so she introduced me to the UK's oldest tannery in Devon.
I was captivated by this remarkable place, mesmerised by the well-worn wooden paddles rythmically turning the sheepskins to ensure an even tanning in the ancient wooden vats. Every six months I still visit to get my ‘fix’ of this fascinating place, and it never disappoints. It’s super-busy, with the process beginning on the ground floor, and ascending the many levels up the enormous mill to huge and noisy machines, brushing and ironing the finished items. I can’t help stroking every sheepskin that I walk past, which, in this vast building, is a great deal of stroking.
About 10 years ago, the father of a friend offered to 'do' my family tree. I knew very little about either side of my family so thought it would be interesting. He set about finding my long-lost relatives...
Several weeks later he presented me with a plethora of certificates of births, deaths and marriages. My father’s line was of immediate interest, as although I knew there were strong ties with the southwest of England, mainly centred around Yeovil and Wells, it appears the Ashley family were firmly established here back in the 1800s. More interesting still, my relatives were almost exclusively in the sheepskin and glove-making industry.
At about the same time as discovering my 'sheepskin heritage', I found myself in Street in Somerset sitting in an old stone & brick tannery with a sheepskin manufacturer that creates traditional hand-crafted sheepskin clothing and superior contemporary home furnishings.
I mentioned that some of my relatives came from this area, were involved with sheepskin and glove making and that my grandfather and his brother had set up an engineering company, Ashley Brothers in Yeovil. Cindi exclaimed that they had and still use several of Ashley Brothers ‘glove irons’! Would I like to see them? Well, this was exciting.
Ashley Brothers supplied many luxury glove manufacturers, with glove cutters and glove irons including The Alwyn Glove Factory in Worcester which made gloves for the Royal Family and other celebrities.
Each glove iron took a week to manufacture and had a complex internal electric element to heat the glove iron. Ashley Brothers were pre-eminent in this field up to the 1950s.
They also engineered parts for Westland helicopters, which are synonymous with Yeovil. The Ashleys were also involded in setting up a football team, known as ‘The Glovers’. The business, still owned by the Ashley family closed in 2015.
Cindi is also a descendant of a gloving family. She is the great-granddaughter of Walter & Amy Barry who owned a small tannery in the late 1800s.
Their grandson (Cindi’s father) Owen, at the age of 15 was offered a chance to become an apprentice master glove cutter in, you guessed it …Yeovil.
His training was interrupted when he was called up to serve in the Second World War. When he returned to England at 25, Owen finished his indenture and returned home to Street to start his own gloving company called Owen Barry. Now, 75 years later his eponymous company is still manufacturing in Somerset in the same handcrafted traditional fashion.
Cindi and I both have a deep love and passion for this amazing natural material and, as it turns out, chocolate biscuits... Cindi and her daughter Chas now run the business together with Chas's husband being intrinsic to the company finances - a truly family-run business. And their gorgeous dog Bromley, who helps sweep the floor with his tail and graciously accepts frequent requests for hugs.
While I was writing this, Cindi told me that she, too, knew Marjorie Jarvis well and that she would bring her outstanding Angora goat skins to Cindi to manufacture into products. We also discovered that Geoff Woods, Managing Director of Devonia Products, previously worked for A Baily & Co of Glastonbury, whom we believe may also also have used Ashley Brothers's products.
The sheepskin and textile world it turns out, is quite a small one.
Perhaps it was fate or in the blood. In any case it feels very much as if the natural thing for me to do is to work with, and evangelise about, sheepskin and natural fibres - what we consider to be the world's finest fibres. It does seem in some way comforting that the thread of the industry runs back through several generations of my family.
Although Owen Barry no longer tan sheepskins, they still source the very best skins from the UK, Europe & South America. They have an extraordinary team of experienced craftspeople, who create the most beautiful items for a global audience, exquisitely finished for lifelong quality and durability. They hand-cut and sew our beanbags, cushions, seat pads, hot water bottle covers, Toscana keyrings, some of our single and double sheepskins and our characterful sheepskin doorstop. We hope to introduce new doorstop designs and draft excluders shortly, ready for the winter.
Owen Barry and Devonia are key suppliers and although they cannot now supply all our sheepskin needs (we also source from other smaller organic sheepskin tanneries around the UK and some from abroad) it is somehow comforting to know that the bond goes back through the generations.
What a lovely piece of history, heart warming. Your products do your family history proud. Keep up the good work and excellent service. Thank you.
I have been so keen to encourage the use of sheepskins as a replacement for electric blankets,
With the energy crisis pending , this seems a good idea . I am now semi retired but still seem to get
excited with a business idea . Of course it would be ideal to keep the costs as affordable to most .
Thank you , that was fascinating to read your history.
Thank you. How fascinating to hear your history. I love the image of the worn paddles!
Wow!! How true the saying , you learn something new every day . I have read and enjoyed the history behind yet another
craft, may it long continue .