The Herdwick sheep on the Lakeland fells are as plentiful and photogenic as ever. Yet at Cable & Blake which has long championed the sheep farmers by creating beautiful printed fabrics made from their wool there is an issue – they simply can’t keep up with demand.

The business recently had a big order from Cumbria’s only three Michelin-starred restaurant, L’Enclume in Cartmel, providing soft furnishings for their rooms. That led to the restaurant’s customers finding their shop in Kendal. One ordered 47m of fabric for curtains for her home – a large order for the company.

“There’s a problem in manufacturing, we had a lead time of six to 12 weeks from ordering yarn to receiving it and now we have a lead time of six months,” says Rachel Cabble, who co-founded the business six years ago. “It’s because we want such small quantities compared to others. We need to scale up to reduce our lead time…. we need to be pushed up that list. We want to be known as the Harris Tweed of the Lakes!” she says

The company was founded by Rachel Cabble and Alice Blakeney-Edwards who met after both relocating to the Lakes with their husbands and young children. Rachel had already retrained as an upholsterer (she had previously worked in corporate telecoms in London). “I was doing upholstery and I always wanted to make my own fabric. Alice wanted to represent the Lakes and do some good. That was our main incentive,” says Rachel.

When they opened the business they used 50m of fabric a year. Now they need 600m to 1000m.

“We are increasing fabric sales which is where we want to be. Interior designers are wanting stock upfront because we keep running out. Interior designers are also looking to sustainability and suffering from long lead times internationally so they are looking locally as well. Demand is going up and we need to order a lot more,” says Rachel. So they are now looking at taking out their first bank loan since setting up the business.

Sustainability is key to the business - they buy the yarn from a supplier in Yorkshire where it is spun on traditional looms. Rachel’s husband Clive says that virtually everything in their shop is made in or within 20 miles of Kendal. They sell not only their own fabric, bespoke cushions, curtains, lampshades but also support other artisans who create pieces using the material, including Clive’s brother who uses the selvedges to make ragrugs for his Gneiss Rugs business.

When Rachel and Alice set up the business Herdwick fleeces were selling for pennies, not even covering the cost of farmers’ diesel to take them to be sold or sheared. “That was our main incentive. It’s a great product which no one was using apart from carpets and insulation because people thought it was itchy and farmers weren’t getting a return on it. We thought ‘let’s see what we can do to help’ bearing in mind neither of us had any idea

about the whole process. It was a massive learning journey for us both,” says Rachel.

They started off small. They approached Farfield Mill at Sedbergh, near where Rachel and Clive live, and the weaver helped them source yarn and produce the fabric.

“We thought we would do a natural grey. I thought wouldn’t it be good if we could print on the wool, we did some research and no one was doing that. We found a company who could do it for us so I created two designs, a photograph of a lake reflection and I made it abstract and the other one was a drystone wall, very, very abstract. They were our first prints and still very popular. We got the yarns from Patterdale and I thought let’s make a palette of colours which represent the Lakes in the spring and autumn.” The colours were sent to a dyers in Huddersfield to be created. They then set up a showcase in Kendal (in a shop owned by Alice’s husband) with the idea of making and selling fabric to upholsterers. Commissions started to roll in.

When Alice died in 2019 Rachel continued with the business with occasional assistance from husband Clive (an IT consultant) and their three sons. “When Alice passed on it was a shock. I thought we have got to continue this for her sake and also everyone seemed to love what we were doing,” says Rachel. During the second lockdown they moved the business to a larger premises in Highgate and have just taken on their first employee Georgia James through the Kickstart programme who is helping with the digital marketing.

The business continues to evolve – they’ve just won the People’s Choice award at the Cumbria Family Business Awards; Rachel and Georgia are on a tour of major UK cities to create images for social media and they are moving away from using foam and looking at more sustainable fleece options in the upholstery. One spin off benefit is that the Herdwick wool is not only three times stronger than normal wool but, like all wool, is also naturally fire retardant.

They are also planning to increase their online offering – during the pandemic they set up an online shop – and want the brand to be recognised further afield. Newly VAT registered, Rachel says the business is still in the ‘growth’ stage and she only started to take a salary from it last year.

Word is spreading though…they have had requests from America and Australia from people wanting to film their business and also bring textile tours to their shop. “It’s all good PR for Kendal,” says Clive. Despite wanting to sell more widely across the UK (eventually internationally) they also plan to take the business right back to its Cumbrian roots. “It would be nice to do something with our neighbour who has Herdwicks so the wool can be traced back to a particular farm,” says Rachel. In the meantime they’re conscious of how increasing costs are hitting people’s budgets. Rachel says: “A lot of people are feeling the hit, not spending as much. We have less sales in the shop but more commissions. I think this year isn’t going to be a normal year.”