Country of Origin – Join the Wool Pack

Country of Origin, the bespoke knitwear boutique in Amwell Street, has an intriguing name – and an even more intriguing business model.

Appalled by the conditions and loss of life at mass-market clothing factories such as those at Rana Plaza, filmmaker Ben Taylor and designer Alice Liptrot determined there had to be a better way to produce contemporary clothes that are honestly made, highly desirable, and also made in Britain.

“The brand name came from the idea that we wanted transparency about where things come from and how they are made,” explains Ben. “We started the business with an idea that clothes should last longer than a season,” adds Alice, a University of Brighton fashion textiles graduate who previously worked for Donna Karan. “We also believe in shopping small and supporting British manufacturing.” 

It proved a significant challenge: Ben scoured the UK looking for manufacturers they could work with. “It’s quite difficult when you’re new because people favour bigger clients,” he says. “We went to big manufacturers in Leicester and Scotland and the minimum was 300 per colour and 300 per design.”

The solution was 19th-century textile technology: hand-powered, hand-framed knitting machines that are halfway between the two production extremes of mass-market, computer-controlled machine knitting and stitch-by-stitch hand knitting on needles.

Every Country of Origin item – jumpers, hats, scarves – is made on a hand-framed knitting machine in Britain to a design by Alice. The ready-to-wear collection is hand-framed in Hawick (one of Scotland’s specialist knitwear centres) and is available to buy online as well as in London.

A year ago they were wholesaling to British boutiques such as Our Daily Edit in Brighton and Ruskin in Whitstable. These days Country of Origin has a boutique of its very own: Clerkenwell is now the base for Alice (pictured) to hand-frame bespoke knitwear designs to order, which she does on two pre- World War I industrial knitting machines from Germany and Switzerland.

Every row is cranked by hand, as are side, sleeve and shoulder seams, which are joined by a separate linking machine. It’s fiddly work, not least because Alice has to count each row herself because the machines’ row counters aren’t 100 per cent reliable. The wool they use comes from Australia (British wool isn’t quite luxurious enough) and is spun in Yorkshire. As it turns out, Country of Origin encompasses several countries.

“There was a lot of trial and error at the beginning,” says Alice. But it’s paid off handsomely: her designs are bold combinations of modernist hues contrasted with understated colour, in super-light, super-soft wool.

“We were really inspired by the Malevich exhibition at the Tate,” adds Alice. “Such strong colours can still look fresh and contemporary.”

Hints of traditional British knitwear such as Aran or Guernsey can be seen in each garment’s shape – unfussy, clean, more masculine than feminine – or shoulder seams rather than in motifs or patterning. The jumper designs are unisex: on men the fit is tailored; on women it’s more relaxed.

Ready-made jumpers start at £165; thicker, chunkier, made-to-measure jerseys start at £205, a very fair price considering how long each jumper takes to make, the quality of the wool, and the fact that each garment should last for at least five years. Regular in-store workshops will allow customers to knit their own accessory.  ‘We believe in supporting British manufacturing’

After searching for their first store, Ben and Alice are pleased with their new base. “We decided upon Clerkenwell for its name as London’s centre of design,” explains Alice. “It’s central so it’s a good place to meet fashion buyers,” adds Ben. Recent retail buyers from Japan love the charming signature style. Talks with a possible Japanese distributor are in the pipeline too.

“The Japanese are crazy for British design,” says Ben. Quite right. So are we.

39 Amwell Street, EC1R 1UR