Sandra Morton: from sheep farmer to e-commerce entrepreneur
PUBLISHED: 01:16 13 October 2011 | UPDATED: 21:38 20 February 2013
A search for an elusive Christmas gift set a mother-of-three on the road from Herefordshire sheep farming to a global e-business, says Carole Pendle
As you drive through the picturesque village of Upper Sapey on the Herefordshire, Worcestershire border, you could be forgiven for thinking the area is a sleepy backwater, rather than the base for a dynamic fashion business that embraces the latest technology and spans two continents.
However, down a long and winding drive is Park Farm, home of e-commerce entrepreneur Sandra Morton, founder of perilla.co.uk. The farm is based around a delightful William and Mary farmhouse surrounded by 80 acres of grass, arable and woodland but it also houses Sandras online retail business that specialises in woollen products made exclusively from alpaca wool.
The idea for the business came in 2005 when mother-of-three Sandra was struggling with her Christmas shopping. I couldnt find any lovely bed socks for my daughter for Christmas and having searched online and on land realised there was a gap in the market, she says. At the same time Id been a sheep farmer for over two decades, but was beginning to struggle with the hard manual labour required. However, I needed to find a home-based alternative because I care for my son Sam who has Downs Syndrome. My family thought I was mad, until my research showed that even with just a 0.25 per cent share of the walking, shooting and hunting sock market, I could have a 600,000 turnover.
Sandra, aged 56, launched the company in 2006, initially running the fledgling business alongside her sheep farming and horse breeding at Park Farm. By 2008 Perilla was on a firm footing and she decided to focus on it full-time. She says: I bred Charollais and Suffolk sheep to produce top class rams for the commercial farmer and only sold my flocks in 2008 when arthritis in my back and hip meant that handling sheep on a daily basis was no longer possible. Nearly all the local farmers bought my rams when I was breeding and I still miss the joy of making top prices at Tenbury Wells livestock market.
After much research Sandra decided to source the alpaca wool she uses in her products from Peru, working with families whose sole source of income is the sale of the wool. In this way the business is able to provide an income for communities who live at subsistence level, farming at high altitudes on the Altiplano.
Four different factories produce Perillas alpaca socks: one to process the fibre into yarn, a second to dye the yarn and a third to knit into socks and hand-link the toes to keep seams flat. Then finally they are washed, pressed and packed by workers in the north of England, using traditional techniques.
Sandra was drawn to using alpaca wool because of its unique properties. Alpacas unique hollow fibre is incredibly lightweight and warm. The alpaca on the Altiplano have to cope with an arid environment and temperatures ranging from 24C in the summer to minus 20C in the winter months. These insulating properties are perfectly suited for clothing that is also naturally breathable.
Being smoother than sheeps wool, alpaca also has a very low prickle factor and because it doesnt contain lanolin it has hypoallergenic qualities, making it ideal for babies or people with sensitive skin. Its most interesting property, though, is it repels bacteria and odour and effectively self-cleans, says Sandra.
The business gradually grew and Sandra began to diversify her product range into other woollen items and accessories. Then, in the run-up to Christmas, 2009, it really took off. Orders tripled to 600 a month and I made more than 50,000 in November and December alone. I had to beg friends and family to pitch in and employed four temporary packers to fulfil orders. There were boxes and tissue paper all over the house and I was working flat out from 6am to 1am until Christmas Eve!
As the business has grown, so Sandra has reinvested the profits, last year spending 35,000 to convert an outbuilding into a dedicated workspace and stock room. A new state-of-the-art website is Sandras latest scheme, which should be ready in time for the peak period of Christmas 2011. A new colour range of Country Socks will also be launched this winter. In response to customer demand it will be fashion-focused and include bright hues such as raspberry, pink, and purple.
It is all a far cry from when Sandra moved to the area from London to get married 32 years ago, having met Herefordian Grant Morton. Park Farm had been uninhabited for 12 years and was derelict. Restoring it has been a labour of love and it was only in 2006 that renovation work finally stopped.
Undoubtedly all the hard work has paid off, enabling Sandra to fulfil her dream and build a successful business, while remaining rooted to her home and able to meet family demands. She says: Despite living here for three decades, the views from the farm still inspire me. Its like looking at a living picture as changes in the weather transform the landscape.
For more information on perilla.co.uk visit: www.perilla.co.uk or tel: 01886 853 615