Shaun and Julie Daniel

Julie and Shaun Daniel of Alpaca Comfort

Fleecing the textile industry

Husband and wife duo Shaun and Julie Daniel are helping drive Yorkshire’s textile renaissance with their alpaca fleece duvets and cushions made in Hebden Bridge.

The latest research released by the Textiles Growth Programme shows the textile industry in the UK, and Yorkshire in particular, is thriving.

After years of decline, textiles production in the UK is now worth £9.1bn annually and exports have increased by 28% since 2012 with 26% of those orders exported outside EU.

This textile renaissance has been driven by heavy investment from both the government and the private sector and has been boosted by the rising number of start-ups getting started in the industry.

One start-up in particular helping boost the trend is Hebden Bridge-based Alpaca Comfort, a manufacturer of alpaca duvets launched by husband and wife team Shaun and Julie Daniel two and a half years ago.

“We initially established a small business travelling the entire country buying alpaca fleece,” Shaun told BQ. “That business had evolved from our experience of owning and working with alpacas, founding the Yorkshire Alpaca Group, chair of the British Alpaca Society board of directors and then honorary chair of the World Alpaca Conference in 2012.

“We continue to buy, sort and grade tonnes of fleece every year and selling the resulting bales into several mills around Britain. At the same time, we were also running a small retail business selling UK produced alpaca goods and imported alpaca related products from Peru. One product in particular we thought was good enough for expansion and that was alpaca duvets. At the time the supplier we used was making them by hand and production capacity was about three duvets per day.

“As we were already in textiles we were approached by the Textile Growth Fund and asked if we wished to apply for a grant for any textile related project. We explained our idea regarding the manufacture of natural fibre duvets and that we believed that scaling up production would be a way forward. They agreed to grant fund the project and in October 2014 Alpaca Comfort Ltd was formed.”

The pair started off in business back in 2002 with a small alpaca farm in the Peninne Hills. The farm was located in a textile rich area between the mills of Bradford and the towns along the Lancashire border so it gave them the perfect platform to start trading in alpaca wool.

However, following years of buying and selling fleece and goods made from alpaca fleece, they decided to start manufacturing their own and armed with the support and grant from the Textiles Growth Programme, the pair were able to turn their vision into a reality.

“We started from nothing,” Shaun added. “We had no building, no machinery, and no order book. We just had a belief in what we were doing would work. We had to find a building, source machinery and then find orders.

“The building was fairly easy. We knew of a local business park that was just starting to open up new units and we immediately signed up. At the time, it was a derelict chicken shed but the business park start renovating the shed into a modern industrial building.

“Machinery however wasn’t so simple. We had no idea what type of machinery would work the best for us. We visited a lot of mills around the country looking at how textile lines run and what we would need to achieve our goal. Once we realised what was required we then set about trying to find the machinery we needed.

“Finally we came across a carding machine and cross folder in a dusty old building about 10 miles away from our new premises. It was in bits and hadn’t run in years. We then found an industrial sewing machine for sale in a factory in Milan. Within two days of finding it I was in Milan stood next to the machine and watching it work. Two weeks later it was here in the UK being installed in our factory.”

And like any start-up story, the launch of the business didn’t come without its challenges. He adds: “The main challenges for us has been to recognise that we are of a certain character type that leans towards thoughtful consideration of the issues and given time we will come to a long-pondered decision.

“We had to move out of that comfort zone and almost operate with a different character trait of rapid decisions and faster thought processes to achieve a desired result. That for us was probably the hard part. It was driven by the belief that we needed to get this done to achieve the end result we had imagined – a bedding mill making the world’s best bedding.

“On top of that, we also had to create a customer base for a product that hasn’t been seen before. This has meant endless phone calls, meetings with buyers and training for sales staff at retail outlets but it has all been well worth it.”

Bringing a new, innovative product to market is also a challenge as you have to educate consumers about your goods as well as win them over and it was no different for Shaun and Julie. With their duvets retailing from £250-£600, it was always going to be a task. Luckily, the quality of their product and their commitment to sourcing ethically produced goods, helped them stand out above the rest of the market.

Within months, the pair were selling to a handful of retailers and word started to spread. They now have their products stocked by one of the UK’s foremost luxury bedding companies which sells their alpaca duvets as their filled bedding of choice.

Shaun said: “We started with zero turnover and no staff. We now have three staff and a second-year turnover approaching £100,000.”

And looking to the future, they’re hoping to see the company continue to grow. He concluded: “We are still in the early days of our business but we are starting to make inroads into larger national businesses and retail outlets.

“We see this as the future for Alpaca Comfort Ltd and Natural Comfort. We also hope to expand our export side from our existing distributors and outlets in Europe to across Scandinavia and the Far East.”

Shaun’s three tips for aspiring entrepreneurs:

  • Be absolutely certain that what you are selling people will want
  • Make sure you believe in what you are doing
  • Do not allow your confidence to be shaken at any setback. Setbacks happen and you have to carry on. Learn from it and move on. Then revert to point 1.