Natural Fabric, Unnatural Performance
With the entire shirt woven, finished and constructed within 10 miles of Huddersfield, McNair Shirts offers a high performance merino wool mountain shirt with a marvellous story and soul behind it
Article by Rupert Watkins
Tucked away in an airy mill building besides a quiet and picturesque canal, McNair Shirts is an unusual, English made and supremely high quality alternative to the world of man-made breathable materials. Founded in 2013 by Neil McNair, Richard Hamshire and Natalie Stapleton who saw a gap in the market for high performance, merino wool mountain shirts, this small Huddersfield company has quietly garnered a loyal international following amongst outdoor enthusiasts.
From the start natural, merino wool was at the core of their offering, “so many brands claim their modern man-made fabrics are breathable even when they simply not,” says Natalie, “too many people forget nature so often provides the best answers.” Natalie’s own background lies in technical textiles working for a range of large brands and it was whilst working for a performance fabric brand she met Richard, the originator of the idea, who persuaded her to come on board.
McNair buys in its yarn and then has it woven for them at one of Huddersfield’s mills before it is sent for finishing at WT Johnson in the town; whilst a slow process, “it means we make our own fabric and so can then confidently offer exactly what we want,” remarks Natalie. As well as wool, the brand also offers a Plasma Shirt, one made out of water resistant moleskin. Working with a small firm in Hebden Bridge – the last remaining moleskin and corduroy manufacturer in the country – the material is laser treated, changing the surface of the moleskin, to make it both stain and water resistant.
“There was an early sense of mission creep,” recalls Natalie with a smile, “we never originally intended to manufacture but we just could not find anyone to make what we wanted, we approached a shirt firm who said the material was too thick to be made as a shirt; by this time we were so far immersed in the idea we went and took the plunge making ourselves.” The fibres of merino wool are raised for warmth so it can also be worn as a mid-layer over a natural fabric base layer or as a jacket. For the various trims around the hand sewn collars and cuffs, the firm has had customers sending in their own pieces of tweed or tartan to be stitched in; whilst McNair does not offer full bespoke where every detail can be personalised yet, it does offer a made to measure service where basic measurements and aforementioned trims can be customised.
With founder Neil a professional snowboarder, McNair has always appealed to snow sports fans, “as well as being robust and warm people also quickly realised how much more versatile the shirt was and how it could be worn away from the slopes” says Natalie. The first prototypes were tested by mountain sports enthusiasts around the world as well as by Neil and fellow British snowboarder Jenny Jones.
Following in their wake, the shirts have started to gain popularity for country wear; as well as being extremely practical they are actually smart enough they could be worn over a shirt and tie to all but the most formal of shoots. Two lengths are offered – one slightly longer for snowboarders and skiers to keep the backside warm. Off the back of partners “borrowing” the merino shirts, eight months in, McNair introduced a women’s range with a more fitted cut and being offered in a wider colour palette.
Looking back on McNair’s first few years, Natalie unhesitatingly points to the move in workshops as a step change in what the brand could do and how it could – and continue to – grow. Compared to their current light and open 5,000 square feet, the first year saw the team of two in a workshop a tenth of the size. “The larger mill space meant we could both hire extra staff and refine production processes,” recalls Natalie. The team is still small, at seven, and there is always a constant requirement to find skilled seamstresses, “everyone always checks the shirt as it’s picked up, you have to concentrate constantly as otherwise the shirt has to be unpicked and done again,” Josie who has been with McNair since the start comments. “We are always on the lookout for those people who have the skills set to make the entire shirt all the way through, even though we do not have a rigid ‘one seamstress, one shirt’ approach having that breadth of ability is incredibly useful.” A high percentage though is made by one person and in a very personal touch, the individual seamstress signs that shirt.
The larger and more welcoming space has also meant it is a nicer location for aficionados to visit, “we do get a steady stream of customers through the door,” Natalie says, “we’ve had one from Australia who was over in this country and we’ve had people who’ve come up to us from as far afield as Edinburgh and Surrey.” The other gratifying thing with this loyal custom is most buy more than one, “once they’ve tried one, they know they work,” says Natalie with a smile, “and then their partners phone up interested…”
Natalie is keen to expand and grow the firm, “we’ve been stocked in Fortnum & Mason and have had enquiries from other large shops and retailers, including in North America,” though with such a small current team servicing the orders on top of their thriving made to measure business will require further recruitment. In 2017, McNair made nearly 1,000 shirts and this year aims to grow that. Currently the internet provides the majority of sales – as high as 75 – 80 per cent. The brand has done small scale collaborations with the RAF ski team and there are tentative discussions with new investors and other collaborating brands.
As well as the aspiration to offer a completely bespoke model, Natalie also explains the company has considered sourcing its own unique herd of merino sheep – thus being able to offer a verifiably British sheep through to shirt process. This is undeniably very big mission creep as she admits, “we’d need a fairly large flock as we’d need a few tons of wool and although we wouldn’t directly care for the sheep ourselves it would still require time and money to set up.” With this laudable end goal in mind, McNair is looking to do a collaboration with local tailoress Brita Hirsch who introduced her Great Northern cloth using merino wool from Scottish sheep in 2017.
In many ways McNair’s greatest strength lies in the community that makes it, “the entire shirt is made – woven, finished and constructed – within 10 miles of Huddersfield,” Natalie proudly says, “we’re literally able to walk downstairs to our suppliers.” It’s no surprise a local paper referred to the idea it takes a town to make a shirt, a potent idea in a world rightly ever more concerned with the provenance and story behind its clothing. One can see McNair’s biggest issue in the immediate future being the construction direction it takes, offer an ever more bespoke oriented collection from traceable British wool for a niche clientele or look to service the interest and potential orders from British and international stockists at a slightly larger scale.
Given the bland similarity of so much in the outdoor clothing and ski gear world, McNair offers a very British, natural fibre high performance alternative that is rugged, of excellent quality and – critically – has a marvellous story and soul behind it.
Enquires: McNair Shirts, 26 Upper Mills, Canal Side, Slaithwaite, Huddersfield, West Yorkshire UK HD7 5HA / https://mcnairshirts.com/
Riddle’s road trip was generously supported by Jaguar Land Rover with the kind loan of a Jaguar XF R-Sport Saloon (RRP from £35,735) #riddleroadtrip