Inspired by her grandmother, Gloucestershire shepherdess Pauhla Whitaker balances her flock to sheep with her love of stitching, as Kate Chapman discovered when she went to meet her.
The chance discovery of some unfinished needlework has reconnected shepherdess Pauhla Whitaker with her ancestors while encouraging her to launch her own venture.
Finding an embroidered tablecloth started by her grandmother inspired her to teach herself how to sew and after mastering other stitching techniques she launched Sheep in Stitches – making and selling lifelike felt ornaments, brooches and cushions, using the wool from her own herd of 350 breeding ewes.
Working alongside husband Martin, Pauhla is a National Trust tenant farmer, overseeing 227 hectares (560 acres) of organically farmed land at Overtown Farm in the Cotswold Hills, where they keep a mix of sheep including mules, Scots half breeds and Vendeens alongside a 70-strong herd of suckler cows.
And it is this vibrant landscape, with its livestock and wildlife surrounding her that is the inspiration for her intricate needlework.
“Working outdoors in all weathers, covered in mud, soaking wet and freezing cold, it’s easy to wonder why on earth anyone would want to be a farmer,” she explains. “Then there is the emotional rollercoaster of lambing time with life, death and 20 hour days.”
“But on a good day when the spring flowers are just starting to emerge from the grass, the sun is shining and the skylarks are singing overhead, there’s nothing else I want to do and nowhere else I want to live. And it’s this landscape that feeds me the inspiration for my needlework; the textures, colours and feel that I try to put into my work.”
Although she’s always had an interest in arts and crafts, it wasn’t until she hit her early 40s she began to take a real interest in sewing, after stumbling upon a tapestry she had started some 15 years before.
“I thought ‘I really must finish this off’ and I quite enjoyed it,” she recalls. “When I rediscovered my tapestry, I also found a beautifully hand-embroidered tablecloth, sewn by my grandmother about 60 years ago in a design of beehives, holly hocks and other cottage garden flowers.
“I decided to get some thread, learn some basic stitches and see if I could copy it.
“I asked my mum if I could have a look through gran’s old stuff and there were a lot of embroidery silks.
“I used them to copy part of the design and it suddenly occurred to me about half way through that I was using the silks she had used – that’s why the colours were a perfect match, they were the same ones.
“As I stitched, a gap of over 60 years closed gently, reuniting me with my grandmother in spirit at least, through a love of needlework.
“It also got me thinking I’d like to do some more detailed work, so I watched a few videos online and got a couple of books, and me being me, I thought I would have a go, rather than go to a class, I prefer to work it out for myself.”
Pauhla gradually built up her repertoire of stitches before diverting to needle felting, cross stitch and felt toy making for variety.
In 2012 she set herself a more substantial challenge of creating a still-life of wild flowers picked from one of the farm’s cornfields and found she had the skill to translate the three- dimensional living plant she was looking at into stitches on fabric.
After illness forced her to take to her bed, she then decided to make a Swaledale Sheep from felt, having seen a photo in a magazine.
“It had strong colours, and I thought it would be nice to try and make one out of felt, so I started drawing and then cutting bits out to make a template before stitching it together and I really liked it, so then I set myself a target to make every British breed – I’ve done about 17 so far,” she adds.
“Friends loved them so I booked a table at the village craft fayre and sold out. Before I knew it, I had orders coming in, and had started my business and a shop on Etsy where I sell my work.
“I take commissions too - people will send me a photo of their dog and say ‘can you make that into a hanging ornament using felt?’
“I’ll pretty much try anything - cushions, book covers, I did a children’s nursery mobile too - if it can be embroidered or made out of felt, then generally I will give it a go.
“So far I’ve done cockerels, limas, alpacas, all sorts of dog breeds and I’m currently working on a blue-tongued lizard.
“As a shepherd, my passion is in creating beautiful pictures of sheep and I specialise in stumpwork sheep, using anything up to 3,000 French knots and individual drizzle stitches to build up a thick lifelike fleece. I also add authentic features such as individual ear tags.”
With all the sheep she was making, it wasn’t long before Pauhla ran out of wool roving – before it occurred that she had the ideal resource under her own nose – or rather 350 of them and she began using fleeces from her own flock, which has made her work more tactile as well as looking and feeling lovely.
Although she attends a couple of local craft fairs, she sells the majority of her work online, with many of her customers based overseas thanks to finding her social media profiles.
“I use Twitter and Facebook quite a lot to showcase my work,” she says. “I told myself I’d give Twitter three months to build a following and it absolutely took off and that’s what really drove a lot of initial orders.
“I’ve got a lot of followers in the States, many of whom have no connection to agriculture, but like sheep; there’s a lot of good will towards them and collectors out there who love to have items with them on.
“People are really interested in UK farming too and what’s going on and through social media they’ve got a chance to ask questions about what we do and why we do it. It serves as good publicity, puts a face to the industry and creates a go to point.
“I close the shop for a month during lambing as this work has to fit in around my farm work, and I did wonder whether the Twitter activity would all go quiet.
“I stopped showing the sewing and started posting pictures of the real sheep, and everybody was getting into what was happening on the farm and what I do the rest of the time.
“I was able to show people the sheep that produce the wool that I make my things from, and they were definitely interested.”
But however popular her sewing proves, Pauhla is clear it must never take precedence over her farm work.
Her needlework is time-consuming, with new pieces taking up to six hours to complete from drawing and making a template, fitting it together, stitching and embroidering. Once a template is made, pieces can still take up to three hours to make.
“I am not good at sitting down and doing nothing,” says Pauhla, “I tend to do a lot in the evening but try to be a bit disciplined about it. Generally it’s something I can pick up between other jobs.
“Farming is the main work, there is a bit of down time, especially in the winter – sometimes we are done feeding livestock by four or five o’clock, and as we’re not dairy there’s no milking to do, so I can come inside and get on with paperwork or if there’s not a lot to do, I can use the couple of extra hours to sew.
“I would like to do more, but I have to be realistic - it has to fit around the farm work.
“I love that everything I do is based on what I can see and it’s great PR for the farming industry.”