Made in Middle-earth: Grey sheep to silver screen

Wellington-based textiles company Stansborough has a story with enough discoveries, twists and turning points to rival the films in which its products now star.

When farmers Cheryl and Barry Eldridge looked to diversify activity on their New Zealand sheep station, they had no idea the results would star in some of the largest movie projects being undertaken in the world today. Their plan to preserve a rare breed of sheep from extinction and a farm operating profitably took them on an unexpected journey.

A fine tale
Wellington-based textiles company Stansborough has a story with enough discoveries, twists and turning points to rival the films in which its products now star.

Stansborough Limited - then a small company based in a Wellington seaside suburb - was first contracted in the 1990s to produce Fellowship cloaks and other fabric for The Lord of the Rings Trilogy.

"They ended up ordering over 1000m of five or six different designs for The Lord of the Rings - we would’ve never thought we could’ve done that kind of the volume at the time," recalls Cheryl Eldridge.

"We had no idea of the impact it would have. We knew Peter was making the films, but we didn’t really think much about it until they were being launched."

Starring role
The on-going collaboration has just seen the company release two sizes of Gandalf the Grey’s Mystical Silver Scarf from The Hobbit Trilogy - the same model that Sir Ian McKellen referred to in his film blog as "a substantial, magic-looking silvery scarf to wear and act with and perhaps find some part of its own to play."

"I’m so excited to be part of this film," Cheryl says. "It’s fantastic that small New Zealand companies like us can compete in the global market providing world class products."

While producing the fabric for the ‘Fellowship Cloaks’ and other costumes is still the biggest and most high profile project to date, the unique grey Stansborough fibre has since appeared in other major films including Disney’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Prince Caspian, along with The Waterhorse, BBC''s Kidnapped, and the Spartacus television series.

They have also worked on exclusive collections for SAKS Fifth Avenue, Liberty’s and David Jones.

An unexpected journey
Like many farmers of the era, in 1991 Cheryl and Barry Eldridge were looking to diversify their hill country sheep and cattle farm to turn it into a more viable business. One option was the development of luxury textiles, so Cheryl went on a search for the perfect flock.

"I’d done some research into this grey breed the agricultural development company lambXL had brought into the country about 10 years before. The story goes that there was a bit more space on the plane so they had put a few on," Cheryl recalls.

The breed - originally Goth Sheep from Sweden, but now registered as ‘Stansborough Greys’ - had come from Denmark, where their wool had once supplied the sails for Viking vessels, and was later bred for pelts.

"They’d gone away from this primitive fine wool breed into a pelt breed. Because New Zealand farmers prefer white sheep, nobody had really wanted them and the flock that was brought out had ended up on a farm in the South Island up on the Takaka Hills."

The sheep had been left to fend for themselves so that by the time Cheryl found them they had begun to revert back to their original breed through natural selection. It was exactly the way Cheryl wanted them.

A wool and a way
The Stansborough Greys’ blue-grey wool is extremely lustrous and much finer than other sheep of the same original breed. As well as the flock of 350, Cheryl also found there was a frozen gene pool that she would use over the coming decades to breed the finest flock.

Once they had the fibre, the Eldridges needed to figure out how to process it. Another discovery led to a series of historic looms in a country shed near Masterton, a country town north of Wellington.

"They are masterpieces of design and engineering. They were among the very first commercial worsted looms manufactured at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and are now the only ones of their type in the world still working commercially."

Cheryl made a deal with the retired weaver - she’d buy the looms if he taught her how to use them. She spent the next five years learning commercial weaving, and designs all Stansborough fabrics, accessories and products with her daughter, Kiri.

While the Stansborough factory is based in Petone, just a short drive from Wellington’s film-making hub of Miramar, it was in New York that swatches of the new company’s fabrics were discovered by New Zealand costume designer Ngila Dickson - who would later win an Academy Award for costume design for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, along with nominations for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Last Samurai.

Growing business
Stansborough’s original flock has now more than tripled to 1200. Alpacas on the farm also produce fibre, used to add warmth and a variety of other natural colours to many of the products created at the weaving mill.

The Eldridge’s personally attend the shearing, classing and grading of the fleece of each animal, which has to be done twice a year.

"The end product is totally natural and eco-friendly - from the sustainable way the animals are farmed, right through to the chemical-free hand finished textiles. The fibres used are in totally natural colours or dyed with only biodegradable overdyes."

From the source
Fans of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and The Hobbit Trilogy can buy products direct from the source and view the weaving mill in action through a window to the past at Stansborough’s Mill at 22 Sydney Street, Petone, Wellington. The Mill Shop is open Tuesdays and Thursdays.

More information

''The Hobbit'' Trilogy

Made in New Zealand: Hobbit Artisan Market