Reviving green heritage

Open a luxury fashion magazine anywhere in the world right now and you are bound to spot a feature on the Heritage Look, where often Irish tweed, linen, yarns and unique craftsmanship feature highly. They are woven into the country’s landscape, culture and history that helped create them. As Irish Design 2015 launches, K’s reporter minds the quality and feels the width.

In today’s fashion world, Ireland punches far above its weight as a small country perched on the edge of Western Europe. A veritable hotbed of creativity, designers such as Simone Rocha, Philip Tracey, Jonathan Anderson, Paul Costello, Louise Kennedy and Joanne Hynes are shining a light on Irish talent, on a global scale.

Concurrently, heritage fabrics are gaining in visibility. Tweed features prominently in many current collections; Stella McCartney showcases pieces such as the blanket coat and jumper which would not look out of place in a windswept Connemara; and Alexander McQueen’s chevron tweed jacket is a sell-out on net-a-porter. This renewed fascination with fabrics that have long formed the backbone of the Irish textile industry is good news, especially as the Celtic Tiger emerges from recession.

There is no mass production of textiles in Ireland: it is a luxury industry that lays claim to unmatched craftsmanship, something that Irish companies need to leverage. Eddie Shanahan, Chairman of the Council of Irish Fashion Designers is adamant:

“If craftsmanship, natural ingredients and quality are our heritage, why can’t they be our trade?”

He feels that Ireland must compete as a luxury brand and on craftsmanship, not on price, despite the competitive environment. 

Sustaining a slow pace

One positive outcome of the crisis is that, “There’s been an explosion of creativity in response to the recession” observes Laura Magahy, chairman of the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland. To celebrate this and to boost international recognition of great Irish design, DCCOI are launching a new initiative. Through a series of events, Irish Design 2015 is exploring themes such as sustainability, sense of place, creativity and well-being – all factors key to the current revival.

Sustainability, in particular, comes up frequently in conversation with people in the business. The Tweed Project is a collaboration between two creative dynamos: stylist and costume designer Triona Lillis and restaurateur and art curator Aoibheann McNamara. Their design venture uses Irish tweed (from Molloy & Sons) and linen (from Baird McNutt) and brings these fabrics into the twenty-first century, creating handmade, one-off pieces that are both contemporary and enduring.

Their project was born out of the slow fashion movement.

“People want to slow down. They have reached the point where they are looking for sustainable labels and quality, buying a few key pieces for their wardrobes that will last.

We are not taking anything from the original but adding a modern twist.”


Another up-and-coming company with similar values is twenty-something brother and sister team, Lorcan and Sarah Quinn from Banbridge in Co. Down, who have created Enrich and Endure.

Both worked previously in totally different careers (Lorcan was in property development and Sarah in interior design); they entered the linen market when they spotted the opportunity, “The market was dated and we could bring colour to it.” Using Thomas Ferguson Irish Linen, they make products such as tableware, cushions, throws and blankets. Adding vibrant designs to reach a younger clientele, the pair aim to “bring linen back to a modern audience.”

Retailers are also feeling these changes, in a positive way. Béatrice Fortier Sebastian, the owner of Ireland Way, a shop on Paris’ trendy Left Bank which has been selling traditional Irish jumpers, tweed and linen for forty years, feels that the industry is modernising. She mentions the successful Avoca brand (established in 1723) as a company that has moved with the times and which is a bestseller for blankets and throws.

She also notes that when it comes to clothes, the cuts of suits have adapted recently and that her clients, who are mainly French, but also include European, American and Japanese, return because “the clothes are always beautifully made and the quality of the fabric is superb.”

The quality of the fabric has not escaped the attention of the larger retailers, too. J-Crew, Brooks Brothers and Marks & Spencers turn to Baird McNutt for their linen, a highly respected family business based in Ballymena, Co. Antrim, founded in 1912. Owner James Baird believes that beyond the quality of the products, “creativity and constant innovation are absolutely important.” At the same time, one of the challenges for the industry is “getting clever young people into it.”

This is what the National College of Art and Design in Dublin is trying to help with. Angela O’Kelly, head of design for body and environment, highlights that teachers encourage students to use “natural fibres but use those with a combination of the new generation of fabrics.” She notices that this helps the students to combine “our rich cultural heritage and play with traditional designs in a creative way.”

Family values

Mourne Textiles is a family company doing just that. Mario Sierra has recently re-launched the weaving business established in 1954 by his Norwegian grandmother Gerd Hay-Edie, at the foothills of the Mourne Mountains. In the 1980s, production went east and the troubles in Northern Ireland hit business hard, meaning they had to lay off their weavers. Now, he and his mother, master weaver Karen Hay-Edie are back producing iconic mid-century designs, including the signature Shaggy Dog hand-woven tweed and award-winning Milano Rug. 

They employ three full-time apprentices, as well as a man in his 80s who used to work for his grandmother many years ago. Mario is grateful to “learn so much from the previous generation of weavers” and adds that he always knew he would go into the business.

“It becomes part of your life. I learned how to walk under the looms; I’d sit under my mother’s pedals and stop her weaving!”

Why are Irish heritage textiles so sought-after? James Baird has the answer: “When you get to Donegal or Connemara and you see the sea breaking on the rocks, you realise that landscape affects how people view the world and that’s reflected in our fabrics. The consumer who wants something unique can find it in Ireland, made by real people in a real landscape, using a set of thought processes that is different to anywhere else in the world.”

And in a world where globalisation often means standardisation, that unique quality is a true luxury. 


Legends & credits

Photo Avoca,
Photos Mourne textiles,

Photo Mourne textiles,
Photo Mourne textiles,
Photo Enrich and Endure,
Photo Avoca,
Photo Baird McNutt,
Shaggy dog tweet coat - Photo Mourne textiles,