Chilly morning at rugby sparked hot idea

Hakataramea Valley farmers Hamish and Charlotte Bell and their daughters Zoe (6) and Lexie (8),...
Hakataramea Valley farmers Hamish and Charlotte Bell and their daughters Zoe (6) and Lexie (8), wearing coats made from wool produced on their Cattle Creek farm. PHOTO: SALLY RAE
"Solidifying on the sideline."

That’s how Charlotte Bell felt as she watched her young daughter run on to the rugby field in the beautiful - but often wintry climes - of the Waitaki Valley.

As she prepared for another freezing season cheering from the sidelines, Mrs Bell pondered how nice it would be to have a woollen coat to ward off the cold.

A lover of both farming and fashion, she had a strong idea of what she wanted but finding a stylish New Zealand-made coat which was made from 100% natural fibre was nearly impossible.

It sparked an idea.

She and her husband Hamish are proud sheep farmers, farming a 1000ha property at Cattle Creek in the Hakataramea Valley.

It is a picturesque spot - their sheep graze under the gaze of the Kirkliston Range and the Hunter Hills - among the peaceful, sweeping landscape.

Wool is a passion for the couple and that was something which was handed down from Mr Bell’s father Alex, who continued to class their fleeces.

They said they were frustrated to be producing such a quality product from their Romney flock, yet one which was so worthless as strong wool prices continued to languish in the doldrums.

Hamish Bell described the state of the strong wool industry as "gutting" - the prices they received for their twice-yearly shearing did not even cover the shearing bill.

They were keen to not only use their own clip but to add value to it.

As bales of wools accumulated in their woolshed, Mrs Bell recognised a way for her and her family to be both warm and stylish both on the rugby sideline and further afield.

"Google was my friend," she laughed, as she recalled how, several years ago, she set about endeavouring to produce women’s coats from their Romney lambs’ wool.

She had no idea where to start but it slowly fell into place. Even sourcing a 100% cotton lining - rather than a synthetic option - was harder than she thought, but she would not compromise.

Just like the paddock-to-plate concept in the meat industry, her label The Clip created an ethical and natural pathway from wool to wear.

Those "unparalleled" qualities of wool - which ticked all the environmental boxes, as well as being breathable and renewable - needed to be "shouted from the rooftops", Mrs Bell believed.

"Farming is tough yet we choose to put our heart and souls into working to create a better product year on year.

"Our wool produced from the farm is of an outstanding quality and this amazing product needs to be better utilised," she said.

She believed fashion and natural materials should go hand in hand and customers should be proud of choosing 100% natural, New Zealand-made materials to wear.

Launching The Clip came at a good time for Mrs Bell. The couple’s younger daughter Zoe started school last year and, while Mrs Bell had always helped on the farm, it was nice to have her "own thing" which also tied in with the farm.

Covid-19 had meant the business had taken a little longer than she had expected to launch, but a photo shoot was planned this weekend and online sales were due to start shortly.

The pandemic had also been positive in that people had become accustomed to connecting online and she had been able to do everything remotely from the farm.

She was grateful to have so many "amazing women" around the Hakataramea Valley to talk to and bounce ideas off.

While the area was arguably best known for its farming - and as the childhood home of former All Black captain Richie McCaw - it has also become the home to some entrepreneurial, farm-based businesswomen.

That included Andy and Liz Hayes’ luxury treetop accommodation Nest Tree Houses, Bex Hayman’s popular women’s jewellery and accessories range Whistle and Pop, which was inspired by rural living; and illustrator and graphic designer Dana Johnston.

Mr Bell was brought up in the Hakataramea Valley and returned to farm after a stint away working in various areas as a shepherd, and shearing overseas. He loved farming in the area; this year, in particular, had been "awesome".

His wife, originally from Kurow, described the valley as an "amazing community".

"Honestly, it’s cool to live here," she said, explaining how their children spent most of summer at the nearby river.

She was frustrated at what it felt like, at times, as farmers constantly feeling like they were being attacked. "I wish people would find out a bit more [about farming] before they judge what they think it’s like," she said.

The excitement was real when the first sample coat for The Clip arrived. Eagerly tracking its progress, Mrs Bell knew it had reached Kurow, 30-odd kilometres away, but their mail was not due until noon and they were heading away for the weekend.

So in typical country style, she rang their rural delivery driver, explained the situation and asked if she could pick up the special parcel in Kurow.

It was subsequently unwrapped and admired in the local Four Square store - and she got to take it away for the weekend.

She did have some ideas for other products but, at this stage, she was focused on coats, including producing a men’s coat.

If demand grew enough, there was an option of using wool from other farming family members.

Mr Bell said he was very proud of his wife and he also got a thrill from knowing the wool in the coats came "from your sheep’s back".

Mrs Bell described creating the business as a fun journey, and she had enjoyed seeing the excitement of their daughters Lexie (8) and Zoe (6) about the project.

Of course, there had had to be two special "mini-me" coats made for the girls, who were both delighted with their new wardrobe additions.

"They love telling people about them, they’ve been very proud wearing their coats," Mrs Bell said.

"Even on hot days," Mr Bell added.

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