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Shetland rug-maker boosted by appearance on Ben Fogle’s show

Helen Hart on Shetland with sheep with sea in background
Helen Hart's philosophy is one of "kindness to the animals." Image: Big Partnership

A Shetland sheep fleece rug-maker is toasting a rise in sales following an appearance on Ben Fogle’s Channel 5 series New Lives in the Wild.

Hart of Shetland, founded by Helen Hart, featured on the show last month.

Ms Hart said it had led to a significant increase in demand for her rugs, with orders now in for all 40 sheep on her croft in North Yell.

The business is founded on sustainable principles and Ms Hart, who moved to Shetland in 2016 to escape the “consumerism” of south-east England, hand shears each sheep, which she says is calmer for them.

Each rug can take a week to make from picking over the fleece to making sure it has no bits of dry grass and peat, to packaging up and sending to the buyer.

Helen Hart with a fleece
Hart of Shetland has seen major interest since appearing on television. Image: Helen Hart

Ms Hart has plans to extend her range into items of clothing, blankets and accessories, but for now says the rugs are “keeping me busy”.

Local crofters showed her how to shear the sheep as she had no prior farming experience.

Her rugs look like traditional sheepskins, with distinct colours and textures, but have a woollen back and not skin.

Ms Hart said: “Prior to the programme with Ben Fogle I was only making a few rugs a year and selling mainly through word of mouth. It was something I wanted to develop into a business, as a way of making the croft sustainable.

Crofting ‘doesn’t cover the bills’

“After the programme I received many requests for rugs and got completely overwhelmed. I underestimated the time it would take me to make the rugs alongside working outwith the croft – crofting doesn’t cover the bills.

“In April last year, I decided to concentrate on building the business and gave up regular employment. I have about 40 Shetland sheep and have orders for each of their fleeces to be made into rugs.”

Ms Hart initially joined a start-up course to learn more about how to prepare for trading.

She has since accessed a suite of Business Gateway’s start-up services, including one-to-one support from a dedicated adviser.

This has covered the development of her business plan, expansion and exporting.

She also received support for business administration, accessing market research on ethical trends and the identification of new customers.

Ben Fogle
“Ben was as you see him on the TV – polite, interested and a genuine person,” Ms Hart said. Image: David Hartley/Shutterstock

She was also referred to DigitalBoost, which offered a “health check” to identify gaps in her digital knowledge.

As a result, she enhanced her website – improving its design and functionality for orders, and she plans to introduce a blog and newsletter in the near future.

In addition, she has taken part in webinars to improve her knowledge of Facebook and Instagram for business purposes.

Social media is now where the majority of customers find her, with inquiries coming from as far as North America.

Previously operating on a small scale, with orders placed through word of mouth, Ms Hart needed bigger premises to manage growing demand for her products. She re-roofed an outbuilding to establish a new workshop space, designed specifically for rug manufacturing.

Hopes for workshop to be adapted to receive visitors

She has also received guidance from the Scottish Manufacturing Advisory Service, delivered by Scottish Enterprise, to manage her global supply chain, identifying cost savings and efficiencies.

Ms Hart added: “I am registered as a member of Shetland Arts and Crafts Association and hope to be part of its Craft Trail once I find money to adapt my workshop into a place suitable for visitors.

“My philosophy is to run a business that is ethical, sustainable and cruelty-free.  It is one fuelled by kindness for the animals that allows me to live the life I wish to lead.

“Shearing the sheep of their fleeces in the summer – a process they would have done naturally in times gone past – is required for their welfare and to keep them healthy. I try to keep things simple and as low impact as possible.

Ms Hart wanted to escape the “consumerism” of south-east England by moving to Yell. Image: Shutterstock/Alan Morris

“The soap I use in the process is chemical and palm oil-free.”

Fogle’s team contacted Ms Hart via her Instagram account towards the end of the second lockdown as they were looking to feature people living in remote places in the UK.

“The team was brilliant and great fun,” Ms Hart said, adding: “Ben was as you see him on the TV – polite, interested and a genuine person.

“We have had an excellent reaction to the programme, including from local folk, something that was important to me.”

DigitalBoost delivered by Business Gateway

Business Gateway manager Kirsten Nicolson said: “Hart of Shetland is a great example of a sustainable Shetland business with huge appeal.”

DigitalBoost is a digital skills training programme delivered by Business Gateway across Scotland and funded by the Scottish Government and Digital Scotland. Business Gateway is delivered by local authorities throughout Scotland.