Handweaving & clothing from Donegal, Ireland

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Hilfiger nod reflects Irish wool industry's standing

Cutting out Donegal Irish Handwoven Tweed Jacket at Studio Donegal

“Tweed is going to be the ‘in’ fabric for 2012,” said Chris Weiniger, who runs Donegal Yarns, which supplies other fashion brands such as Ralph Lauren, Polo and Paul Smith. Knitting has been trendy for a few years — the craze zipped around Hollywood to the point where even actor Russell Crowe was reputed to be knitting. Now that Irish tweed yarn is fashionable, Donegal Yarns is particularly busy and other working Irish woollen mills are also marketing internationally these days.

The textile tradition in Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny, dates back to Cistercian monks in the early 13th century, and Flemish and Belgian weavers in the 17th century. In the 19th century, a man called Patrick Cushen began making wool there. His great-great-grandson Philip Cushen now runs Cushendale Woollen Mills, employing seven.

“My grandfather could make a living selling wool in the local parish,” he said. “My father had to extend the market for the business to Dublin and Cork, and now I have to go wherever I can in the world. Our biggest clients would be on the Continent. We sell a fair bit in France, Denmark and Germany, and some in the US.”

Sales of wool have been rising in Ireland too, as the hand-knitting craze has spread.

“There is a change in the person who is knitting now,” said Andrew Eadie, whose great-grandfather bought Kerry Woollen Mills 107 years ago. (It has been handed down through the family since.)

“The person who was knitting when I started out was knitting out of economic necessity, because they needed a few bob or had to clothe their family. Now they knit out of interest and to develop a craft,” he said.

While the resurgence of hand-knitting has been a boost for Irish woollen mills, if not their saviour, times are still challenging. Kerry Woollen Mills employs 13, processing raw wool into finished fabric, which is then made into capes, scarves, blankets and more. It also produces yarn for hand-knitting and Eadie says running a mill is “a survival game.”

“We did a lot of work for hotels, making blankets and furnishing fabrics, but now hotels have gone bust or are not buying,” he said. “That market is absolutely bombed-out. Luckily, our sales graph is modestly upwards in the past year. We are doing okay, but it is a tough fight.”

But Ireland’s woollen mills have been playing the survival game for years and few have survived. Among those that closed were the mills at Dripsey, Douglas, Midleton and Glanworth, all in Cork.

Donegal Yarns rose from the death throes of Kilcarra Yarns, which was being closed by Udaras na Gaeltachta.

“Their policy was to get out of ownership of industry. They saw no future for textiles and wound it down,” said Tristan Donaghy, who runs Studio Donegal, which handweaves high-end clothing and distributes the wool from Donegal Yarns next door.

“It had 12 employees left and if it closed, it was going to cause a further 60 to 80 redundancies in the area. A group of four people who had experience in the textile industry took it over and now it employs 20,” he said.

Donaghy says the back-to-basics renaissance that has emerged in the recession is helping wool sales.

“People feel they want to do something more for themselves. Rather than buying a scarf, they will knit a scarf. If they do the maths, the scarf will cost far more than buying one, but it won’t have the satisfaction. There is a great appeal in doing something yourself when times are difficult,” he said.

Other factors driving the knitting business include the emergence of high-profile pattern designers such as Debbie Bliss, the growth of ‘stitch and bitch’ groups, and the use of social media (most especially Ravelry.com). The mills say the sustainable nature of real wool also appeals to eco-conscious consumers.

But they also say they need the support of Irish shoppers to help preserve the spinning and weaving traditions. Yarn and fabrics produced by the mills are not just for tourists. “People suddenly are realising we have lost so much,” said Cushen. “Let us not lose any more. We are always innovating, changing the range every year and bringing in new colours.

“A lot of the ‘Irish’ knitwear sold in craft shops is actually made somewhere else. A few years ago, we were nearly being encouraged to close down and move manufacturing elsewhere, but when the ‘mangy moggy’ [Celtic Tiger] left, that all changed very quickly. If people support you, you can do great things.”

Irish Examiner, Wednesday September 28, 2011