Shepherding: a 12,000-year-old pastoral practice, what has it to do with fashion? The ‘nomad look’, tanned, windswept, touched by nature, confident in the landscape. Shepherds invented ‘layering’; early morning cold, loose layers to shed, as the day warms. Layering up for evening cold with local natural fibres and leather, dyed with earth colours.
Grampus Heritage from Cumbria in the UK has been involved in European projects since 1997. Now, after BREXIT, new branch offices will open in Cyprus and Germany. In all those years Grampus worked in sustainable rural development. Between 2009 and 2012 the “EU Leonardo da Vinci – Development of Innovation” project “GREEN VILLAGE”, helped to develop a framework for Grampus’s work and the countries that partnered with them … Bulgaria, Cyprus, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Romania, Slovakia, with Kenya as a third country partner.
The main outputs of the project was a study course called “Sustainable Rural Development – Focus on Culture and Nature”, with units in Wood Products (Grampus Directors included foresters), Sustainable Building, Rural Food, Rural Energy, Empowering Communities, Our Sustainable Ancestors and Applied Rural Research. Also came a realization that sustainability was not just about the environment; true sustainability had to include social, cultural and economic sustainability.
We called them the FOUR PILLARS OF SUSTAINABILITY … And if each pillar scored 1 to 10 points – 40 was the maximum, 4 the minimum … we could start to measure sustainability for a household, business, village, process or product. In GREEN VILLAGE and up to now, we never found 40 points – 37 was the maximum, 12 the minimum. Grampus and partners seek to work on projects to push scores up to a minimum of 25 points. Traditional shepherding scores pretty high.
Wild ancestors of today’s domesticated sheep and goats, from top clockwise, Tur, Bezoar, Chamois, Mouflon and Markhor.
Shepherds and sheep – What’s so special?
Well, shepherding of sheep and goats goes back at least 12,000 years. Neolithic (Stone Age) people, first domesticated wild sheep, like the mouflon and wild goats such as Bezoar Ibex, Markhors, Turs and Chamois. Other wild or recently domesticated breeds came from the east and laid the foundation for all the domestic breeds of sheep and goats today. Breeding over the centuries has been to increase the quantity and quality of products…meat, milk, fleece (wool), skin, even for bigger and better horns for tools, jewellery, buttons and handles. Almost 22% of Europe is mountainous and 15% or so was wet, too dry and poor for agriculture, so sheep and goats were more useful for Neolithic people than say, cows, horses or pigs, which were domesticated later.
Early shepherd’s in art
So, they were the first domesticated wild creatures. The very best land in Europe has always been for growing cereals and later, vegetables. There developed a sort of symbiotic relationship between sheep, goats and people. You might say (some vegans could disagree) that in return for the multitude of products, the formerly wild animals got protection for large carnivores such as wild cats, bears and wolves. There are some simple facts…
-The architecture of the face of sheep and goats with their narrow faces and nibbling teeth make them more successful grazers and allow them to bite off plants lower down. This can be a disastrous situation if the grazers have total freedom… they ‘overgraze’, such as in medieval Iceland where they destroyed fragile ground vegetation and set about terrible erosion, So, ideally there needs to be an attending shepherd, who controls what the animals eat – usually by keeping them moving.
-If it’s done properly, shepherded sheep and goats have a positive impact on grazed environments and increase biodiversity by controlled grazing of invasive and courser plants. BUT, the animals cannot roam free.
-Despite all the benefits of a highly sustainable product and process creating an attractive and biodiverse landscape, about 95% of Europe’s shepherd’s have disappeared since 1945 … What to do?
From pre-historic and Bronze Age art we start to get some idea of what early shepherds were wearing. In pre-dynastic north African rock art, Neolithic painted pottery, Egyptian friezes and Ancient Greek sculptures, we get some idea of what the earlier shepherds were doing. All of the students and teachers who joined the project had a chance to see ancient art. They also got to meet local shepherds, to get some ideas about lifestyle.
Students from the Estonian island of Saaremaa, led by Gilleke Kopamees delivered “From Sheep to Dress”.
Some of the decline in traditional shepherding is about a lack of information and education. Being a shepherd or a sustainable sheep farmer is not such a dull job but it’s hard work and ties the person to the land. Very few young people enter the farming sector and farmers are now averaging 63 years old across Europe. How to attract and interest young people and promote shepherding as a career? Of course, it’s complicated but one way is to use fashion as a catalyst.
Through the Cumbria (UK) “Rural Women’s Network” (2001-2006), which emerged from the dreadful foot and mouth disease, we started getting involved in sustainable sheep farming. In 2006 we linked to “The Wool clip”, a co-operative of (mainly) farming women, and fashion came into the agenda.
In 2008 we ran our first wool-linked fashion show at “Woolfest”, which has grown into the UK’s largest wool festival. The show had two elements, a partner organization from the Estonian island of Saaremaa delivered “From Sheep to Dress”, students sheered the sheep, processed the wool and made their own clothes – a great example of sustainability and bridging the generation gap. It was the brainchild of fashion expert Gilleke Kopamees and we (Grampus) focused on the historical figure, Marie Antoinette, who promoted romantic notions of French shepherdesses. In the following years, we shared the stage with Slovakia’s Kežmarok School of Art and inspirational designer, Zlatica Svitanová. More recently a team from Cyprus, Romania, Poland, Slovakia and Germany has presented ‘Shepherd-Inspired Fashion’.
With Sublime Magazine, our woolly fashion debut was in 2011, when Grampus, working with Romania’s Monica Oprean of the Satul Verde Association, won the ECONIC AWARD. The focus was a dress made with big knitting and peg-loomed unspun sheep’s fleece. Monica designed and made it with inputs from the UK’s Jenny Bush and Slovakia’s Adriana Patkova.
Grampus Heritage with Monica Oprean of Satul Verde Association in Romania – with inputs from Jenny Bush (UK) and Adriana Patkova (Slovakia) – ECONIC AWARD from Sublime, 2011.
I first remember hearing the term “Shepherd-Inspired Fashion”, in 2014, when a stylist for Vivienne Westwood, Stevie Westgarth, saw a Facebook post of mine, showing a Romanian shepherd in a massive fleece coat. All over the Balkans, such coats are in everyday use, even today. Shepherds, often nomadic, were becoming a focus for some fashion designers, and the ‘Shepherd-look’ or ‘Nomad-look’ was taking off. For me, that look has some defining features…
1. Clothes in natural colours – perhaps dyed with plant, mineral or even animal pigments. 2. Layering, so the shepherd can take off layers as the cold night transforms into hot noonday sun. 3. Loose fitting to allow movement. 4. Use of leather, sheepskin, and wool + other natural fibers (cordage from grasses and tree bark for example). 5. Simple adornment including fringes, tassels and chunky jewelry from found objects. 6. Freedom, confidence and good health. Undoubtedly, shepherds are ‘long-lived’! 7. A sense of romance, adventure and poetry – shepherds became famous authors, poets and pioneers. 8. Being in control of your own time and destiny. 9. Rooted in culture and nature, in-tune with the cultural landscape. 10. Not a slave to time but going with an easier pace of life and a more natural lifestyle with healthy eating, etc. 11. The wearing of masks by shepherds to guard again insects – we glamorized this aspect a bit!
Since the first correspondence, meeting with and working with Stevie Westgarth we have done photoshoots and events in Romania, Slovakia, Cyprus and Turkey, all supported by EU programmes such as ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ and ‘Erasmus Plus’.
Some earlier shepherd-inspired fashion in Cyprus – models clockwise from the top: Hamshya Rajkumar, Esra Fügen Paşaoğlulari, Claudine O’Sullivan, Greg Webzell, Jakub Dvorsky, Josie Seymour and Karen Gager.
To bring our shepherd fashion up to date, during the COVID-19 year of 2020 in Cyprus, we were fortunate to be hosting several German, Bulgarian, Sri Lankan, Dutch, Turkish, and UK students and teachers. It was an ideal opportunity to make a film!
This feature comes with the film produced by our team but harnessing and showcasing the great cinematography skills of Ognyan Yordanov (Oggy) – well-known in Europe’s fashion scene. Big thanks to Oggy for his support to Shepherd-Inspired Fashion.
For more information you can watch the video.
Read more of Martin Clark’s articles in Sublime Magazine