Eva and Chris Lock are a British couple who relocated to Lunigiana, in Northern Tuscany, from the Cotswolds 14 years ago and started a business that oozes love for their adopted country.
I met Eva, Chris, and their sweet dog Lazzaro a few days ago in Pavia and we immediately clicked. Not only are they a lovely couple with a great sense of humor, but they’ve also set up a fantastic business that truly expresses their love for Italy, called Shabby Sheep Design – I know, not really an Italy-related company name, but keep reading to find out why they chose it!
Shabby Sheep Design is a clothing and accessories brand that creates witty designs based around Eva’s and Chris’s passion for Italian life. These guys are simply great at turning icons of Italian lifestyle like Prosecco, Spritz, and gelato into truly captivating logos with the addition of original and funny text.
I thought I’d share with you their story in the form of an interview where we talk about their experience of living in Italy and their Shabby Sheep project. So, without further ado, let me introduce you to Eva and Chris!
Hello Eva and Chris, thanks a lot for taking the time to participate in this interview. Why don’t you start telling us a bit about you?
Ciao Val, thanks to you for inviting us to share our story with your readers. We are two Brits who proudly call Italy their home since 2005. We live in a farmhouse in Lunigiana, in the north of Tuscany, away from the popular tourist circuits, where we’ve recently started to create Italian themed t-shirts and accessories that we sell online as Shabby Sheep Design. In our previous life we worked for a big retail bank in London, Chris was in customer services while I worked in advertising, but we never really fitted in that lifestyle.
After running an art gallery in the Cotswolds for some time, we finally decided to take the plunge and move to Italy to start our dream new life with our dog and 3 cats. We like to think of ourselves as “immigrants” rather than “expats” because we came here to better our lives, integrate and make Italy our permanent home.
When was your first time in Italy? And what made you decide to move here?
We first came to Italy about 30 years ago on a whirlwind tour of the usual suspects in Tuscany. We were WOWED! We didn’t have dogs in those days and so we could fully enjoy the architectural wonders. Most of our previous holidays had been driving around in France, which at the time we thought was where we’d like to live one day.
Then on one ski holiday, we went over the top of the mountain dividing France and Italy and skied down into a little Italian resort. It was honestly that moment that was like a lightbulb flashing and a siren sounding ITALY, ITALY.
How easy was it to adjust to life in Italy? Any major challenges or cultural differences?
Relocating to a foreign country always brings some kind of challenges along the way and Italy is no exception. And deciding to live in a remote village in the rural Italian hills didn’t really help from this point of view.
We’ll share a funny story with you (well, not that funny back then….). When we moved, there was no reliable telephone service, no mobile signal at all and no broadband in the village, nor was there any likelihood of it ever getting to our house. Eventually, we found a local cableless broadband provider but even they couldn’t get service over the hills to our place. But necessity is the mother of invention and so Chris drove the technician to an agriturismo located on the distant hill line, who confirmed that if a repeater was installed on the roof, a signal would reach into the valley where we lived – however, the company would need at least 12 subscribers to make the required investment! So, over the coming weeks, we visited all our neighbors in the surrounding villages and with our basic Italian we managed to gather sufficient signatures to convince the company to go ahead with the works for a broadband connection.
Having said that, life in Italy is truly amazing, just don’t expect it to be a bed of roses.
How did you come up with the idea of Shabby Sheep?
Before we left the UK we used to run our own art gallery selling Eva’s paintings and work by other local artists. After we settled in Italy Eva continued to paint, but selling art here is much more difficult. Getting work into a gallery is not a simple matter and can be very costly to the artist. Much of the local market is restricted to wealthy foreigners and again, that is not an easy market to tap into.
But people still loved Eva’s creativity and friends too kept encouraging her to find a different way of making her creative output available to more people. So we started researching print options and especially online printing. One thing leads to another and here we are!
Why the name Shabby Sheep?
Good question! In terms of search engine optimization we should have called ourselves ‘Italy Fun Shirts’ or something similar. But we felt that the term Shabby Chic kind of summed the two of us up ‘denoting or relating to furniture or soft furnishings that have a pleasingly old and slightly worn appearance’. And it was only a matter of a small number of spritz and beers later that we evolved that into Shabby Sheep and then bolted on the design element. There have been other iterations and there may yet be more!!
You work together on this project, how do you split duties?
Top question! We’ve worked together before and therefore we’ve learned that to have both of us doing the same thing makes no sense. Luckily whilst we both share the same passion and vision for Shabby Sheep and work with the same values, we are both good at different elements of the business, so we each do what we’re good at.
Eva is the creative in the true sense, bringing ideas to life no longer using acrylic paint, but now using various digital tools on her iMac. And she definitely has the final say when it comes to which designs make it to the online store or not! Chris focuses on the mechanics of the business and runs the customer-facing side of things – though he is allowed to let his creative side run wild occasionally too!
Do you create also customized items?
Yes, we’re just starting out down this road as we see it gives us a big opportunity to place Shabby Sheep above the big online retailers. We’re still waiting on some new integrated technology (we depend very heavily on technology to bring the supply chain to life) to enable us to offer personalization across a whole range of clothing and accessories.
In the meantime, we’re excited to have launched an awesome range of beach towels that can be personalized either with names or phrases. The range has started well and people seem to love the designs, the concept, and the potential it gives them for owning or giving a truly unique product.
You are very sensitive to environmental issues, how is this reflected in your business?
We are, and it’s a tough one Val, to be honest. Everything you do has an impact on something else, nothing works in a vacuum. So we insist that we only work with suppliers who operate at the highest levels of managing their environmental impact, and also their social responsibility too. So, for example, many of our products are made from organic cotton (so no pesticides are used to treat the crop and no workers are exposed to pesticides either) or other organic and sustainable plant-based materials such as Tencel (which is produced from wood pulp using recyclable solvents).
Some of the products are made in factories which only use energy generated from renewable sources (wind/solar) and all of them are produced in factories where the workers are treated and paid fairly and where their health and safety are fully respected and protected. Beyond that, we use a printer that only works with water-soluble dyes and zero plastic in packaging.
What are your long-term goals for Shabby Sheep?
Eek – what a question! Well, we have no plans for ‘world domination’, and we’d honestly be very pleased to see the business grow in line with the way it has started. Organic growth is what we are working on rather than exponential. If things grow organically we can ensure we continue to wow our customers – to date our customers love our products, our designs, and our service, and we don’t want that to change.
We actually run Shabby Sheep Design as a ‘lifestyle business’ which means that for us it’s as much about the journey as it is the destination (profit). So actually our long term goals are as much around learning new things, keeping ourselves creatively stimulated, having a good laugh and meeting new people (and we’ve met some great people like you, for example, Val) rather than solely to be aiming to make a boatload of money!
Do you have any personal tips & tricks for people looking to start from fresh in Italy?
Oh yes! There are a few things we wished we’d known when we moved to Italy, for example:
- the importance of “Lei” (the “you” in the formal sense), fiercely guarded by professionals to maintain a sense of importance and respectability
- knowing people who know people, because this is how most stuff happens in Italy – forget the yellow pages!
- lots of recipes for excess zucchini, because unless you have offended everyone in your village, you will be given zucchini all the time and so you need to be prepared to be creative in the kitchen
- and stay away from any trattoria that has a menu printed in anything other than Italian, and certainly no international flags or photos – ideally, no menu at all!
I’m so curious, what do you love most about Italy?
This would probably require a separate blog post because there are so many things we cherish about Italy. Our top favorite things are:
- the unconditional generosity of the locals – you are never more than 5 minutes away from something amazing happening in Italy!
- any piazza that has a bar where they serve Spritz
- whacking back a caffè ‘normale’ in seconds whilst leaning on the bar rather than sitting around drinking a ‘bucket-sized’ mug of mud-like coffee
- the joy of simple things like respecting mealtimes – gone are the days of sandwiches eaten at our desk!
- making our own olive oil (Chris planted 50 olive trees over the years) and walking in the olive groves with our dog Lazzaro
- oh, and of course the Vermentino white wine… so good!
… anything that you don’t like about Italy?
Well, there are a few things that we still struggle with despite having lived in Italy all these years:
- Italian bureaucracy and those “desk jockeys” who hide behind pointless rules and regulations, making even the simplest of tasks extremely difficult and confusing
- ZTL (Zone a Traffico Limitato), areas in the city center where you cannot drive but are so deviously badly signposted that you’ll mathematically get traffic fines (arriving months after your visit, of course)
- Poste Italiane (the Italian post office), aka the place where people go to die in the queue. Seriously. The anxiety of having to mail something is real and people even take time off from work when they need to accomplish something at the posta!
- the infamous congiuntivo tense, one of the biggest hurdles of learning Italian. It’s not used extensively in English and is more slippery than a slippery thing!
- the Italian expression “Arrivo subito”, which literally translates as “I’ll be right with you”, but in reality means “You can wait there for as long as you want, I’m talking to my friend on the phone”
Thanks so much Eva and Chris for sharing your story and funny anecdotes!
You may have noticed that I don’t write about brands and products here on the blog that often, but when I do it’s because I truly believe in them. Eva and Chris are super creative and fun, and their love for Italy is infectious. Take a look at their creations and get in touch with them for any questions about their project, their products and of course life in Italy:
You can use the discount code MyItalianDiaries to get 15% off your first order
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