Want one of those snazzy Christmas jumpers? It’s no sweat in York

18 Dec 2013 @ 1.26 pm
| Fashion, Shopping
Ben de Zille Butler sports one of the snazzy pullovers in York's Sweater Shop
Ben de Zille Butler sports one of the snazzy pullovers in York’s Sweater Shop

Christmas jumpers are having a moment. You can’t move for nutty knitwear featuring scarlet breasted robins or a blizzard of snowflakes.

Save The Children even hosted the first Christmas Jumper Day on December 13.

So the return of the Sweater Shop to York could not have been better timed.

Now based in a whitewashed shop on Low Petergate, residents with long memories will recall the previous incarnation, which was found in premises on the corner of Stonegate and Blake Street.

One of its best sellers back then was an embroidered town pullover with the Sweater Shop logo and “Cambridge – York – Windsor” written underneath.

So what happened to the business? Operations manager Ben de Zille Butler explained all on a recent visit to the York shop.

The Sweater Shop was started by his mother Lesley and grandfather Brian making clothing in the textile city of Leicester.

“That was built up to 68 shops and 2,500 employees. Everything we made, we sold, everything we sold, we made,” Ben said.

The firm even had its own flock of sheep to control its basic raw material, wool.

“In 1995 the family decided to sell it – it was becoming too big for a family business,” Ben said.

A management buy out took the business out of family hands, but the new owners “changed our philosophy” and it went into liquidation 2½ years later.

Ben had been expecting to go into the family business since he was a toddler being pushed around the factory in a yarn carton. Then, aged 18, he found there was no family business.

The comeback

He found success running a gym and beauty salon business. Two years ago he started looking for a new challenge, and with his grandfather, decided to start up the Sweater Shop again.

A new factory followed and shops in Cambridge and Leicester proved there was demand.

Some of the festive knits in the Low Petergate shop
Some of the festive knits in the Low Petergate shop

They tried out a Christmas jumper this time last year at a pop up shop at the Meadowhall shopping centre at Sheffield.

“Last year it was the penguin with the pom pom Santa hat. We put a dozen in Meadowhall and they sold out.

“We could only make 78 a day and sent 78 each morning to Meadowhall – they sold out and there was a waiting list.”

This year it’s the reindeer face design which is flying off the shelves.

York was one of two permanent Sweater Shops opened this year. It was always a priority location.

“We’ll stay as long as we can in York. We love York.

“You have got two types of market in this sort of town. Lots of tourists and university student give footfall, so quite a small town has a good catchment area.

“The north seems to have more disposable income than the south, because of house prices.”

Window dressing

Ben, who is 37 and married with four children aged under eight, acknowledges that times have changed. “The world’s a different place. The economy’s a different place to five years ago, let along 25 years ago. M&S is down for the ninth quarter, but Primark is 29 per cent up.

“We’re trying to get in the middle of the market.”

The shop sells a lambswool jumper for £39, kids’ sweaters from £10 and adult garments ranging from £15 to £59 for a pure Arran wool knit.

Who are the customers? “Sweater Shop has always been about quality garments for the whole family, from three years old to 90.”

He aims at a variety of customers through the week. “We dress the windows for different times of day.

“In the morning it’s a middle age classic; on Saturdays youngsters want to buy something to go with skinny jeans.”

In the future he expects Sweater Shop to build its online offering and open another ten shops on the high street. But for now, Ben is happy watching his grandfather’s Rudolph sweaters gallop out of the York shop.