Gemma Shepherd: The English Knitter With a Graphic Eye

Photo: Gemma Shepherd

Gemma Shepherd, the mind and hands behind her eponymous label, Shepherd England, never really expected to fall into the world of knitting. “I wasn’t very good at hand-knitting,” she says, noting that, in fact, “it was hilarious how bad I was.” But with an art school background in graphic design and photography, she’s long been interested in capturing and creating new patterns.

That’s why she launched her U.K.-based label in 2005; since then, it’s garnered a small following for a vibrant and simple, but striking, collection of lambswool knit scarves and buttery leather-and-wool gloves. If anything, all of her eye-catching, handmade products — whether the zigzag called “Flash,” or one called “Empire,” which pays homage to New York’s iconic building — show zero hint of any knitting shortcomings. Below, she explains her late-in-life knitting education, the value of heirlooms in a woman’s life, and more.

Where did the idea to start your own knitwear company come from?
I left art school where I did graphic design, and I specialized in photography so I carried on doing that for a couple of years but it wasn’t really moving anywhere for me. One day, I felt I wanted to try something different. I wanted to start making things again, because I really loved being in the dark room and going through that kind of process. I thought: You know what? I’m going to teach myself how to use a knitting machine. And it just started from there.

What specifically about knitting were you attracted to?
Aside from the actual knitting process is the actual designing, the making of these really nice graphic patterns, which was most intriguing to me and that’s kind of how it began. Through a friend, I got introduced to Sid Bryan. He’s one of the Sibling crew. At the time, he was doing stuff for McQueen and he needed an assistant for a few weeks before Fashion Week, so I  got to do that. Certainly I was on the sharp end of the wedge. He taught me some really cool stuff, and then Shepherd England was born.

Tell us about your production technique, how are your products made?
I’ve got a studio at my mum’s farm. When my dad died we had to sell the animals, but another guy farms all the land. So it’s still got that really rural, lovely kind of feel about it with the animals. It’s in Kent, south of London. We converted one of the small barns into a studio for me, so I work from there. It’s all really homespun. Hopefully it doesn’t look too homespun, but that’s what it is at the moment. We’re tiny but slowly branching out. I’m getting more and more recognized; it’s exciting.

What’s the balance between functionality and a statement piece?
They have to be functional, otherwise there’s no point. I don’t make stuff that’s so out there that only a couple of people want to wear it. I want everyone to be able to wear it. You know, my mum is 74 and she loves wearing them. That’s really cool, and then some hipster wears them as well. That’s important to me. I want something interesting.

All your products are made of 100 percent Geelong wool. What separates it from other wools?
Geelong is in Australia. It’s this very fine merino lambswool, and it’s so incredibly soft; it’s really versatile, it holds color really beautifully. You can have it quite thick and chunky and it’s still just as soft and beautiful as if it was super-super-fine cashmere weight.

They sound like heirloom pieces.
God, that would be amazing. They’re the kind of thing I want people to keep forever. Actually, I’m hoping to move into homewares, because I want that kind of thing where you pick a piece to keep in your home. As opposed to a fashion piece — which, whether you like it or not, always has a sense that you can chuck it away at the end of the season — I want things that you can keep hold of.

For U.S. consumers, the scarves and gloves are available on her website.

Gemma Shepherd: England’s Graphic Knitter