Wool from Jessica Cross’ 50-strong flock of Southdown sheep is now the basis of a growing business making high quality bedding. Jonathan Wheeler finds out more.
Amid frustratingly poor prices for wool, Devon farmer Jessica Cross has found a niche market that adds value to fleeces from her Southdown flock.
Wool from the flock is used to fill duvets and pillows, a task she says takes maximum advantage of its excellent ‘loft’ – the crinkly nature that enables it to retain its shape.
“Southdown wool has a very short fibre length,” Jessica says. “But it is very lofty. You cannot spin it into yarn easily, which means it is unsuitable for knitting.
“As a result, it is normally mixed with Charollais wool and used primarily for making carpets or blended with other wools for a range of other end uses.”
She combines the wool from her flock, however, with that of other breeders and sends it to Biella The Wool Company in Northern Italy where it is processed and then used as the filling for quality cotton-covered duvets, pillows and mattress covers.
And it is a route she suggests could provide a valuable market for other Southdown breeders, as she has much greater demand than she can satisfy.
Jessica first got into farming a decade ago after she quit working in London.
She initially began farming in Hampshire, but for the past four years has done so at 13-hectare (33-acre) Primrose Farm in Upottery, Devon.
She says: “After years in the city I wanted to get out. I had always wanted to farm even though there is no background of it in my family.
“But I realised the traditional farming model could not keep us afloat and I needed to find an additional activity that could add value.
“My background in commodities led me to ask whether there was anything I could do with wool and the business started from there.”
After consulting with neighbours and friends, she decided that, being just over five feet tall, keeping cattle or taller-framed breeds of sheep would be impractical.
She thought a smaller sheep breed however would be manageable and bought about 20 Southdown ewes, which has expanded to nearer 50 ewes over the years.
She says: “I consulted the British Wool Marketing Board on what to do with the wool and was put in contact with the manufacturer in Northern Italy.”
By talking with other Southdown breeders, Jessica managed to put together a consignment of 300kg of wool, sent it to Italy, and some months later received back several boxes of duvets and pillows.
The company in Italy, Jessica says, is run by people who share her vision.
“Their primary objective is to work with farmers to obtain the maximum value for their wool, while increasingly recognising the importance of provenance and traceability of their raw materials.
They sort and grade the wool and then outsource the processing and manufacturing to wool specialists in the Biella region.
“In addition, the consortium does a lot of co-operative work with a number of Italian universities, who are researching all aspects of natural fibres.”
The wool is then used as the filling for top quality cotton-covered duvets, pillows and mattress covers.
“Because of the wool’s ‘loft’ or crinkled structure, it is able to hold its shape and retains more air when used in this role,” says Jessica.
“As a result, a duvet filled with Southdown wool is lighter than a conventional alternative but offers a similar tog value, a bonus for those who do not like heavy bedclothes. It is also breathable, so it is comfortable all year round.”
When the first consignment of bedding arrived, Jessica admits she initially thought the duvets seemed too thin but changed her mind the first night she slept under one.
She says: “When I first opened the box I though the duvets looked too insubstantial. But when I got into bed under one, they were amazingly comfortable and I have never looked back.”
And she is far from alone in that assessment.
The farm also has four cottages on-site that are let to holidaymakers and all are equipped with the bedding.
As a result, a surprising number of holidaymakers go home with wonderful memories of the Devon countryside, as well as a set of bedding.
“It is a very effective way of marketing the products,” Jessica says. “I let them try before they buy. Some customers get very attached to the flock – some of them send Christmas cards to my sheep.”
And while her bedding carries a premium price, it sells readily to a particular type of customer, says Jessica.
“You have to accept that 95 per cent of people will never understand the idea and never become customers.
“But the 5 per cent who do understand buy into the idea and are not bothered by the price. For them we offer an exceptional product and customer service. They become customers for life.”
Jessica also offers a service to recycle used duvets as everything is biodegradable.
One key sales point, she says, is the product’s excellent eco-credentials, as the sheep grow the wool naturally.
“The Italian processors use only biodegradable scouring agents and natural spring water to clean it and remove the lanolin, something that makes the bedding very suitable for people with allergies.”
Jessica also believes her products have great provenance as she deals directly with other Southdown breeders to send several tonnes of it for manufacture every year.
“I know all the breeders and exactly where the wool comes from,” she says.
Although Jessica would prefer to get the wool processed in the UK, she says the facilities simply do not exist because the plants have been closed down.
Before starting the business, Jessica spent 30 years dealing with mining products like gold, silver and platinum.
Jessica Cross combines the wool from her flock with that of other breeders and sends it to Biella The Wool Company in Northern Italy.
Although she describes these as being ‘a world away from farming’, she feels the skills and experience gained in that business have direct relevance to her new business, notably the desire to extract optimum value from commodity products.
Jessica also suspects Southdowns might not be the only breed that could benefit by developing such a niche market.
She says: “The wool of each breed has its own particular physical characteristics that could be exploited to make the most of those properties.”