SupplyCompass recently spoke to Rachel Carvell-Spedding, Founder of Navygrey, a British sustainable knitwear brand committed to the art of the well-made jumper. With fully traceable wool from sheep to shop, each jumper is purposefully understated and made sustainably in small batches. Navygrey’s packaging is also plastic-free and made from recycled materials, with each jumper coming in its own organic cotton bag.
Rachel started her career with studies in history, which led her to work as a researcher and producer for history documentaries, before moving into a career in the business world. Rachel’s love of history was pivotal throughout the years, and even more so for her business; Navygrey was inspired by the jumpers and cardigans that her mother and grandfather wore, as she couldn’t find something in the market that compared. Navygrey’s philosophy stems from this as they focus on creating classic pieces that are made to stand the test of time.
In Conversation With is SupplyCompass’ latest interview series, highlighting fashion and homeware brands from around the globe who are balancing people, profit and planet, and are leading the way when it comes to responsible business.
What prompted you to start Navygrey?
I’m somebody who loves and lives in jumpers, but I couldn’t find the one jumper that I wanted to live in, apart from a 24-year-old jumper that my mum had in her wardrobe. It’s a super-soft wool jumper that you can put on and you don’t really have to think about it. I searched high and low for the best part of a few years to find a jumper just like that, and I couldn’t find anything similar.
In 2016, it got the point where I thought: I either have to create this jumper as it’s the product that my wardrobe is missing, or I have to stop thinking about it. I then decided to take the plunge.
It was during the research phase with consumers, friends and family that I realised that a lot of people felt the same. I very much wanted to create a jumper that was from a really soft wool rather than cashmere, which had really flooded the market at the time. There are also a lot of questions over the provenance of cashmere and the impact on the environment, particularly with the way that cashmere is certified.
What makes Navygrey different to other wool brands?
There are many different types of Merino wool, let alone wool. The Merino wool that we’ve gone for is a finer micron; we use 15.5-micron wool, which makes it less hardy and not itchy, and it only comes from a certain type of sheep from selected farms in Australia. We then work with a mill in Italy, where they wash the wool, treat it, and spin it in such a way that gives it a loftiness and lightness. We purposefully select long wool fibres to help with the performance and durability of our jumpers.
The interesting thing is that it’s not just about the raw fibre—the quality of the sheep farm and the way it’s looked after in the farm still is very important—but there’s a huge amount that goes into the craftsmanship and how you then handle the wool. This includes how you’re spinning it, how much wool you’re using, how much water and humidity you then add to it. When we knit the yarn at our factory, our team carefully works out how to balance softness and durability, for example, so once you wash the item it doesn’t shrink or lose its shape. All parts and processes in our supply chain make a big difference to the end result, and it’s something we have been determined to perfect.
We haven’t wanted to treat the wool in any way, and this has caused confusion, as some of our customers wonder why they can’t wash our jumpers in a washing machine at 40°C, like other wool products available in the market. The reason we can’t do that with our jumpers is that we haven’t put any chemical wash in our garments (except in dying) and we’ve kept the process as natural as possible, meaning you have to treat it a bit more carefully.
You can say that a garment is 100% wool but some pieces have been really heavily chlorinated to make them machine washable. Ours is made from 100% Merino wool, but we’ve kept it really natural and removed any harsh chemicals or chlorine processes from the supply chain.
Navygrey has full transparency in its supply chain – from sheep to shop. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
This transparency was a given for us. When we launched in January 2019, it was still before people were really talking about transparency and traceability. When we were a new, unknown brand that started talking to suppliers, we were sometimes laughed out of a meeting or told that there was no way we could get the level of traceability we were after. We found that, for example, if wool was British spun, a supplier often couldn’t guarantee the source of the wool. That wasn’t enough for us, as we wanted to know where the farms were located and where the wool was coming from.
Finally, we found a mill in Italy which was open to working with us, even though we were an unknown entity at that time, as they believed in the vision that we had set out. They loved the purity and simplicity of the products. We had to work hard to find a supplier that was like-minded, which has served us incredibly well. We pay a premium to work with them to get the wool that only comes from certain farms and sheep, and that means our timelines are much longer than any brands working with non-traceable supply chains.
It can take up to three months to get wool to our factory, whilst if we didn’t have that traceable requirement, we could probably get wool within two weeks. That has a huge impact commercially on our business, as we can’t move as quickly as a lot of our competitors can, and we can’t easily restock as we have a longer supply chain. We built that into our model, and it’s important to us, but it comes with its challenges. We think it will get easier as we grow and develop, and as sustainability becomes a given in the retail fashion world.
We try hard to be as sustainable as possible as everything has an impact. To minimise the negative impact, everything from the label on the jumpers to what we print on has to be recycled paper and card. Once we started going down that route, we started holding ourselves to a very high standard.
Even down to things like labels—our jumper’s labels are made from organic cotton —we felt like we wanted to really consider everything carefully. Ideally, we would be using offcuts or deadstock materials, but that proved to be difficult as we’re still too small to work at these quantities. There are some wonderful initiatives out there, but the minimum quantities can often be so high that they become really challenging for a small brand like us.
In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, how has Navygrey adapted? What are you doing differently?
There is a huge element of unknown with COVID-19. The two big fundamental challenges I see are: what the delays in our supply chain are going to be? These still aren’t entirely clear. The other side is, will consumers and customers still buy at this time? There is this moral dilemma surrounding consumerism right now. We need people to still buy and we need to be supporting small retailers that are operating in the right way.
Our mill is in the heart of North Italy, and despite COVID-19, they have kept operating until recently under restrictions. They have gone above and beyond to support us during this time. We’ve realised that it’s worth seeking out like-minded suppliers and partners that really care about their customers. This counts for so much, especially in uncertain times.
Everything has escalated so quickly, but what’s incredible is that our mill always under-promises and over-delivers – a wool order that was meant to be ready at the end of March ended up being ready in mid-March. This means that we will be able to launch our spring jumper collection this month.
A sneak peek inside Navygrey’s Italian mill, Lanecardate.
If they hadn’t been able to do that for us, and they didn’t have the care and attention that they do, we wouldn’t have been able to launch a couple of new styles in our pipeline. As a small brand, we cannot work with such long lead times that a lot of bigger brands can. We don’t have the same cash flow or setup, and we also don’t wholesale, so things move really quickly once our factory receives the wool.
We make our jumpers in Portugal, where the yarn is transported to by road after it’s finished at our mill. Currently, they are operating under similar restrictions to the UK, so we are working closely together and discussing our priorities. Our factory in Portugal is small and they really value our business, so they are doing what they can, despite changing timelines. We are speaking very frequently and working together; we’re making decisions every 48 hours, so it’s a strange way to do business. Before COVID-19, we had really clear timelines and things were very neatly in place. Now, things are continuously changing.
The other challenge is around whether customers will want to buy, and is it right to market at this time, especially when the focus should be on health, well-being and essential items. We’ve had to find that balance as a brand, and it’s all very new and unprecedented. We’re trying to navigate through this and we have a very loyal and supportive customer base that loves the fact that we are able to continue. We will continue through this for as long as we can.
Plus, because we don’t operate in big warehouses and we are smaller and more locally-driven, we are able to continue, even though some things are delayed or changing constantly. Unlike some of the big players, we have small teams that can be agile, and we can use that to our advantage. In terms of shipping, we use DPD because of their carbon neutrality, and we are working with them to ensure shipping continuity for as long as we can.
Tell us about the role technology plays in your business? What tools do you use on a daily basis?
We have a global team in Portugal, Italy and the UK. We all work remotely and come together for certain meetings at certain times. We are a cloud-based operation: we use Slack to communicate, an online accounting software called Xero, and we have a production manager in Portugal, meaning we often use Whatsapp, Facetime, or Zoom Video. This has always been the norm for us as an agile, remote team, so that has made a big difference during COVID-19 restrictions.
What are your aspirations for the future of Navygrey? Can we expect to see new product ranges launched?
In the immediate future, we are focused on our jumpers. We have definitely thought about how we will grow our business, but jumpers will always be our hero as it’s where the business began. We are looking at exploring options around jersey items, like t-shirts and tops, but very much still for the top half of the body rather than trousers. We’re also exploring lightweight knit options so we could have an offering for spring/summer.
For us, the fit of garments is really important. We get so many customers saying “finally a jumper that fits just right – can you do a top or t-shirt like this?”. We do extensive research and testing and have developed a universal fit that will work across different body shapes and sizes. We have a great reputation for a great fit, so if we can translate the learnings from our jumpers and knitwear into a jersey product while remaining true to our core of a great classic, we will continue to develop products that stand the test of time.
What has been your biggest learning or challenge along the way?
Whilst running a business during COVID-19: do not take anything for granted. The suddenness of change has been huge. Anybody running a business right now—whether they’re big, small, profitable or not profitable—is probably in shock.
Prior to COVID-19, it was all about perseverance and learning from the setbacks from being knocked down when you’re starting out. The market is changing from the sustainable and regenerative side, but we still have a long way to go. When creating a business and brand around sustainability and where ethics are fundamental to its DNA, things take longer, but it’s definitely worth sticking with it.
What’s your advice about sustainability to other brands that aren’t embracing it just yet?
The world is changing, particularly with what’s going on right now, and we are now being challenged on a global scale. I think there will be huge impacts on how we live and run business and exist beyond COVID-19. I think there has been a wakeup call with how we’re not able to get everything on demand, like we’re used to. Right now, it can be easy to ignore it, but once it’s over, we will need to reassess that we cannot take things for granted. I think this will reignite our environmental debate around globalisation, travel and everything we do that we took for granted.
I hope it will pave a new way for responsible capitalism. Perhaps it’s hard to see it right now, but there is a great opportunity to be had, and we have to push hard to not go back to our old ways. It goes beyond just businesses being challenged, we are all now mentally and personally challenged – this has highlighted how much the world is changing and how we will need to do business differently.