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Meet the Maker; Ali Sharman Handweaver & Up North Textile Design

Meet the Maker

Meet two of this week’s featured traders, Ali and Rachel, who make beautiful hand-woven textile products.

For Pedddle members, Ali of Ali Sharman, and Rachel of Up North Textile Design, using locally sourced wool is massively important in their creative process. But all it takes is a glimpse at their products to know that attention to detail, texture and colour is a huge part too!

They chatted to Pedddle about what inspires their creative flow, navigating their way through a pandemic as small business owners, the difference between sustainability and traceability and how important both of those are. Read their Meet the Maker Q&A below for a more in-depth look at the world of running a small textile business!

Pedddle: How did your small business begin?

Up North Textile Design: I was first introduced into the wonderful world of weaving at university, and my love of it grew from there really! I’m lucky enough to have lived in a number of artistic and vibrant cities and Up North originally began during my time living in Edinburgh.

I bought my first table top loom, reluctantly bribed my dad into making everything else I needed and off I went! I have since relocated to sunny South Yorkshire, so I’m technically still in the North…just about!

Ali Sharman: I was a ‘crafty’ child, always dabbling with something whether it was knitting, sewing, drawing or mucking around with clay. I’d moved to the Northwest in 1990 and my main pastime and passion was fell-walking. I’d experimented a bit with silversmithing at an evening class but lived in a tiny house at the time with no space for a workshop so apart from the occasional bit of knitting I wasn’t engaging with craft and was really missing it. 

I started to weave in 2012, with no idea why – maybe there’s something in my blood, as one grandfather was a tailor and the other a carpet repairer. Working in IT support for the last 20 years, I realised looms are like computers… you programme them to make a pattern so as long as you don’t make a mistake, the loom does the work. 

I learned to weave first with Laura Rosenzweig of Laura’s Loom in Sedbergh, then joined local weaving guild and later studied with renowned weaver designer Janet Phillips over 2 years, completing her Master Class programme in 2015. I stayed in touch with Laura in Sedbergh and she encouraged me to set up a workshop at Farfield Mill Arts, Craft and Heritage Centre. Laura has blazed the trail for small-scale yarn producers working with local farmers, and under her influence, I started thinking about localised production and supply chains.

The UK readily imports fleece from Australia and New Zealand with little regard for the carbon footprint. That fleece is spun here and labelled as a British product, meanwhile, perfectly good British-grown fleece loses its value and ends up as waste. My business is a mix of handwoven and mill woven cloth. I work primarily with wool – British-spun from British fleece where possible, reclaimed from industry, or bits and pieces that I buy from other hand-weavers. I’ve produced my own range of weaving yarn using fleece sourced from the Yorkshire Dales. It’s been dyed to my own unique colour palette inspired by the landscape of the northern fells close to my workshop in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. My Howgill Cloth range has been produced within an 80-mile radius of my workshop using mills in Yorkshire for scouring and spinning the yarn and in the Scottish borders for dyeing and weaving. 

Pedddle: We’d love to know more about your process, the materials you use and what you’re inspired by! 

Ali Sharman: Weaving is a really slow process. I generally start a new design by looking at colours – sometimes yarn will sit on the mantelpiece for days (weeks even) while I chew over ideas. Then I move to the loom and start to weave samples and I’ll re-work ideas until a design emerges. This can involve experimenting with patterns, changing a lift sequences and fiddling around with colours. Sometimes, unintended mistakes can find their way into a final design! Once I’ve settled on a design, I can move to the loom. If I’m weaving a length of tweed by hand, it can take several days to set up the loom – winding the warp, threading heddles, sleying the reed and tying onto the beams. 

This is why handwoven cloth and products are so expensive; weaving is very labour-intensive. Add to that the high cost of small-scale production of yarn. The cloth that I produce is designed for clothing or light furnishing and if cared for, will last a very long time so I want my customers to see it as a longer-term investment. When I’m not weaving, you’ll most likely find me walking the fells. I took time off in June to walk the Pennine Way in one go – all 270 miles carrying camping gear. It was a great way to clear my head after a long time locked down. The highlight for me was walking through hay meadows bursting with wildflowers as farmers are returning to traditional management processes. I take my inspiration right from the local landscape. It’s so incredibly varied and the atmosphere changes constantly with the seasons and the weather. You can take a look in this video!

Up North Textile Design: I love experimenting and creating new products, so I sometimes find it particularly hard to rein myself in and have therefore ended up with a bit of a variety of products. I try to include a woven or upcycled element in all of my products. I repurpose vintage fabrics to create my hair accessories and recycled glass jars for all of my candles as I love the idea of repurposing something unloved and giving it a new lease of life. I also like knowing where everything I use comes from, so I source all my wool locally, just up the road in Huddersfield, and source deadstock vintage fabrics from a vintage warehouse around the corner from my house. 

 I would describe Up North’s style as playful with a strong focus on colour, vibrant pinks and greens in the summer and more muted tones of rich burgundy and blue in the winter months. Everything I create revolves around the colours I use from the beautiful vintage fabrics I source for my hair accessories to the Yorkshire wool used in my hand woven cushions. One of my first, and favourite products would be my handwoven rainbow cushions, which I think sum me up perfectly…why choose just one colour when you can have them all?!

Pedddle: Why is it so beneficial to shop small?

Up North Textile Design: I personally feel that by shopping small you can get more unique and personal items made with care and love. All of the makers I know, myself included, are so passionate about what they make and how it has been made. Every sale makes a massive difference, and for small business owners, knowing that someone likes a product that you have put time and effort into creating and seeing that notification pop up saying that you’ve had a sale really is the best feeling in the world!

Ali Sharman: My products are expensive because they take a long time to produce – it can take up to a week just to set up the loom to weave a piece of tweed. But the cloth will last a lifetime if properly cared for. You’ll hear much said about sustainability, but I prefer to talk about traceability. As a small producer, I can keep tracks on where and how my products are produced. I was pretty shocked to realise that some un-dyed cardboard I purchased recently had been imported from China, so that made me sit up and think about the true meaning of sustainability.  

My aim is to produce quality cloth, using localised production which supports local economies and communities while at the same time encouraging careful and considered consumption.

Pedddle: What changes did your business face during the pandemic, and how did you overcome them?

Ali Sharman: The first lockdown freed up a lot of time for me to redo my website and set up an online shop on Etsy. I’d been putting off those jobs for a while. Moving online was essential with retailed closed down for long stretches. It also encouraged me to start using social media. 

Up North Textile Design: Despite it being a very strange and challenging year, Covid has allowed me to invest more time into my designs and making. It’s given me time to work on new fabrics and develop new products, building my business more than I could have ever imagined! The pandemic was my introduction to online markets and the amazing and supportive community of creative people that came with it. 

I’m still adjusting to online life and being in front of the camera, including the newness that are lives and reels, but this gave me the confidence to sign up for my first ever real life market at Yummy Yorkshire’s Market on the Farm. I loved being able to meet both customers and fellow makers and being able to chat with people about my products, so I’ll definitely be signing up for lots more in the future.

Pedddle: what’s next for your business in 2021?

Up North Textile Design: Weaving is at the heart of my business so I try to include a woven element into all of my products, even my candles come with a unique woven band. My project for this year will be to work on a number of videos/reels in order to share my making process with everyone. Weaving can be a long process with lots of elements and takes time to prepare and produce fabric. I will therefore be aiming to set up a new warp and length of fabric every 2 months, documenting my progress along the way. I will be using these fabrics to produce a range of one off products, where the customer will be able to see the products journey from start to finish!

Ali Sharman: I’m going to produce more tweed. I think the next piece of tweed will be similar to the brightly coloured orangey check cloth in my range, but in a completely different colour way making use of dark blues, green and reds. But there will be a splash of really bright colour in there somewhere. I have a few other ideas for manufactured cloth but they’ll stay in my head for the time being. 

I’ve just purchased some lovely British yarn from Laura’s Loom and am looking forward to handweaving it into some scarves for the Christmas markets. I’m also able to weave bespoke scarves, shawls, throws and cloth.