As we get that little bit closer to winter and we look to wrapping up in soft layers of cashmere to stay warm and cosy; we chat to Rosie Sugden, founder of her eponymous Scottish cashmere label, for the next chapter of our Women That Inspire Us series. Marrying her artful, contemporary designs with the soft qualities of premium Scottish cashmere, Rosie’s pieces celebrate time-honoured craftsmanship and are made to last a lifetime. We loved hearing about how she started her business, about her adorable pugs Daphne and Edith and about her treasured wedding jewellery.
How (and why) did you become a knitwear designer?
Textiles runs in my family, my late father and both maternal and paternal grandfathers worked in the textile industry so I grew up surrounded by it. My incredible father, James Sugden, was the best mentor I could have ever wished for and instilled his love of textiles and British manufacturing in me. He ran a mill and used to pick me up after school and take me round checking each department. He was very hands-on and knew about every department and process that the cashmere, wool or merino went through. To this day I still love the smell of the dye house, as it is so nostalgic for me. I think it was his passion for textiles that seeped into my life, and I always loved being in the mill from a young age. He always encouraged me to be creative and after school I went on to Chelsea college of art in London for my foundation course, then Northumbria University to study fashion design where I specialised in Knitwear. I started my business about a year and a half after leaving University and it happened very organically.
What inspired you to take the leap to launch your own brand?
After I graduated I had this burning idea for a knitted turban and I couldn’t find one anywhere and I remember sketching it and showing it to my father and saying how great I thought it would be in cashmere because it wouldn’t itch my forehead! He loved it and then somehow I decided to launch my own brand. Looking back it is hard to remember, or pinpoint, a particular moment where and when this was decided but my father took me to see a small mill which he knew could do smaller production runs for me which was exactly what I needed because the bigger mills just wouldn’t be able to offer me that kind of flexibility. Before I knew it, I had designed a small collection, placed a very tentative order with the mill, and had a logo and website designed. I launched Rosie Sugden cashmere in October 2011, and I remember my very first sale – it was such an amazing feeling to know someone had found my website and liked my turban design. That’s where it all began really and the following year I launched a proper collection and haven’t looked back! I truly owe it all to my dad because he supported me every step of the way and taught me how to order yarn, calculate costings, deal with production… pretty much everything.
You produce your cashmere in mills based in Scotland. Can you tell me a bit about the materials, techniques and skills that make this process special?
As mentioned, I’ve grown up around the Scottish textile industry and there is such a wealth of skills in Scotland as well as a rich history with manufacturing. It didn’t even occur to me to consider manufacturing my collection anywhere else. I want to support local industry and utilise the highly skilled workforce that have been in the industry for generations. I work with two mills – one in Hawick where my socks, berets and pom-poms are knitted and another near Peebles that knits all my other styles. Everything we knit is 100% cashmere, and I buy my yarn from two reputable spinners – one in Scotland and another in Yorkshire. Both the knitting mills use a combination of high tech Shima machinery and hand skills to make our products. So, for instance, the more patterned styles like the leopard beanie are knitted on a Shima machine, but our turbans are hand knitted. I find manufacturing and production really fascinating as there is always so much more work than you think that goes into a product. For instance our yarn has to be dyed, blended, carded, wound and spun before it is ready for us to knit with. Then once the product is knitted it is linked, washed, hand-finished, labelled, and pressed.
Can you describe a typical day?
I am usually woken up at about 7 by my two pugs Daphne & Edith who love to jump on my head and tell me to get up and take them to the park. I love to start the day with a walk, it really prepares me for the day ahead and it just always so good to get out in the fresh air. I also work from a home studio and so I don’t have a commute, I feel the walk is a good substitute! I do check emails and Instagram first thing, which is a terrible habit but it does give me an idea of how the day is going to go. I am at my desk by 8.30/9 and most days are spent in the office fielding emails about wholesale or retail orders, perhaps a bit of design work, or maybe shipping wholesale orders but my best days are when I go to the mill. I love to check in on production and see how things are going, it’s always exciting to see new samples or colours that are coming off the machines. The mill is only an hour away so I can just jump in my car and pop down.
How do you balance creativity (designing) with necessity (the business and admin aspects of running your own label?)
Well I always remember my father telling me an old adage ‘One Percent Inspiration, Ninety-Nine Percent Perspiration’, and I think it sums up what running a business is like. So, while I love being a designer, running a business is so much more and annoyingly a lot of the admin jobs are necessary. I think I have just learned to accept it and also be proud of some of my ostensibly dull admin achievements like being an expert at DHL’s booking system or knowing all the commodity codes for shipping goods to the USA! I guess I just see it as something I have to do in order for my designs to reach more customers. It also helps that my product is very seasonal so in May/June I have time to really focus on design and sampling new products. The rest of the year is centred on sales, marketing, budgeting, admin and getting the products out there.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Everywhere! However, I think I am most inspired by colour and colour combinations as that plays such a key part in my product. I love modern art – Denis Bowen and Cy Twombly are my favourites, I also saw the Hilma af Klint exhibition in NY this year and that blew my mind. I find nature, and particularly the West Coast of Scotland, very beautiful and inspiring too. We went to the Isle of Lewis & Harris a few years ago and I still think about places we visited there and the scenery – it’s so unspoilt.
What has been the most exciting moment for Rosie Sugden Cashmere?
I think it’s the small things that are the most memorable and exciting moments for me. I still get such a kick from every website sale; it is the biggest accolade and wonderful feeling to know someone loves your designs. I also wouldn’t be here without my wholesale customers who stocked my brand in the beginning and I always feel very proud when I tell people where the brand is stocked.
How do you keep cashmere relevant and interesting all year around? It must be a challenge to keep it from being seen as seasonal.
Well it’s always cold somewhere in the world, and although our hats and gloves aren’t particularly relevant to British customers during May-August our shawl scarves and cashmere socks still do well during these months as I think a lot of our customers buy them for travelling. Having something cashmere with you on plane is absolutely dreamy and really locks in the heat. Obviously I am biased, but I always take a pair of cashmere socks and one of our ribbed shawl scarves with me when I travel. I’m also really excited that we are launching eye masks and hot water bottles!
How do you spend your time when not at work?
I love reading and I spend a lot of time walking or cuddling my two adorable pugs Daphne and Edith, we go for walks in Inverleith Park, and up Arthur’s seat, which I love as office life can be so sedentary and I find it invigorating to get out and about and clear my head. I enjoy exploring Edinburgh with friends, or going to my favourite Mexican restaurant (Bodega Taqueria) with Fred. And, when possible, I love going to the West Coast of Scotland, in particular the Ardnamurchan peninsula.
What is your favourite piece of Davina Combe jewellery and why?
My husband, Fred, gave me a beautiful pair of Davina Combe earrings on our wedding day, which was a complete surprise. They are the Willow Pendant Hoops with Blue Topaz and I just adore them. Even when I am dressed-down they always make me feel presentable and put together, I love that they can be dressy but also casual.