Few images feel more redolent of the 1980s – the era of Thatcherism, shoulder pads and Duran Duran – than the sheep jersey worn by Diana, Princess of Wales. A red woollen jumper emblazoned with rows of white sheep, with one black one at the centre, it caused a stir when Diana wore it to a 1981 polo tournament that her husband-to-be, Prince Charles, was playing in. Quirky, unconventional and fun, it set the sartorial stage for a young woman destined to play a very different role.
This week, the jumper is available once again as its original makers relaunch the design. And it arrives just in time for Diana’s debut in season four of Netflix series The Crown.
Sally Muir and Joanna Osborne, who designed and made the jumper, were completely unaware of Diana’s patronage when pictures of the future royal bride were splashed across the newspapers in the summer of ’81. Princess Diana had never come to the shop. “When we saw the pictures we thought ‘Wow, that’s amazing’, but we weren’t credited and it wasn’t an overnight success,” remembers Muir, whose father was the much loved comic writer and performer Frank Muir. “It was different back then – designers weren’t nearly as calculating.”
Muir and Osborne had discovered their mutual love of knitting two years earlier, when Muir was working in publishing and Osborne was at Granada Television. They launched their business from their bedrooms. Warm & Wonderful, as it was known, took a stall in the Jubilee Market in Covent Garden before an empty shop became available in Wandsworth. “We had no great investment, we only made six samples to begin with,” says Muir. “The sheep jumper was one of them. But they weren’t all red: there was green, blue, black and pink too.”
“Diana wore the jersey more than once, which was quite unusual for royalty in those days,” Muir continues. “We eventually tracked it back to the mother of one of her bridesmaids.” Eager to copy the Diana look, scores of Sloane Rangers started buying the sheep sweater, but customers also included David Bowie and the actresses Shelley Duvall and Tippi Hedren, who starred in the Hitchcock films Marnie and The Birds.
Warm & Wonderful gradually metamorphosed into Muir and Osborne, employing up to 50 knitters, who all worked from home. The jumpers, scarves, gloves and dog coats proved equally popular in New York as in London with “big orders coming in from places like Neiman Marcus and Saks of Fifth Avenue”. But sadly, the original sheep designs were retired in 1994, as the founders pursued new careers: Muir became an artist and Royal Academy exhibitor, and Osborne a sculptor of ceramic dogs.
Now, thanks to a partnership with Jack Carlson, the American owner of Rowing Blazers menswear, the sheep jerseys are back on sale both in the UK and the US this autumn. “He sent us an email one day out of the blue,” explains Osborne. “Apparently his mother used to buy our jumpers and they had always lingered in the back of his mind.”
The sweater has been well acknowledged in recent fashion: homages of a sort have been popular at Gucci, and Lanvin produced a sleeveless blue sheep sweater for spring/summer 2020 that was worn by Harry Styles. Now, with the Charles and Diana story about to feature in the fourth series of The Crown, streaming on Netflix from 15 November, the revival could hardly be more topical. It is enduring proof that the royal fairytale-turned-tragedy still exerts a powerful grip on our collective imagination. And that, when it comes to animal sweaters, we are loyal subjects every time.
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