Friday 27 April 2018

Irish firm forcing competitors to pull up their socks

A surprise endorsement from the Pope has seen fortunes soar for one family business, writes Tom Prendeville

Donegal socks, which will now be stocked by US store J Crew, a firm favourite with Michelle Obama
Donegal socks, which will now be stocked by US store J Crew, a firm favourite with Michelle Obama

Tom Prendeville

WITH socks retailing in department stores at €2.99 for four pairs, it is a manufacturing business that no one could possibly make a few bob at, save perhaps giant Asian textile factories who pay their staff slave-labour wages.

However, for one Donegal family who live in Glenties at the foot of the Bluestack Mountains, the humble pair of socks has kept them in business for three generations.

The Breslin family who own Donegal Socks have not only survived in a bleak economic climate but are now on the cusp of becoming the Rolls-Royce of socks, thanks to their unique, rugged, woven, natural designs and colours.

The good fortune started last year when Daniel O'Donnell's 92-year-old mother, Julia, knitted a pair of socks for Pope Benedict -- a gift he gratefully accepted.

This, in turn, inspired Donegal Socks to go hyper upmarket, which in turn led to an economic miracle, culminating in the company securing huge orders to supply thousands of pairs of socks to America's most prestigious chain store, J Crew, which has 350 stores across America.

Actress Meryl Streep was already a big fan of Donegal Socks' heavy wool woven material. However, Pope Benedict's endorsement sealed the deal.

Other uber-trendy retailers are now knocking on the Breslin's door, which has created its own dilemma: namely how to fulfil the enormous demand, demand that did not exist six months ago.

The town of Glenties has been synonymous with the manufacturing of socks and knitwear for generations. The famous Brian Friel play and motion picture Dancing at Lughnasa -- starring Streep -- is set in the town of Glenties, where the Mundy sisters, on whom the play was based, earned their living knitting socks for the local factories. Today, almost all the traditional skills have gone. However, the Breslin family have held on to the age-old craft that their forefathers bore, and are now on the cusp of exporting it to the world.

MD of Donegal Socks, Martin Breslin, takes up the intriguing story.

"Daniel's mother, Julia O'Donnell, knitted the socks for Pope Benedict; unfortunately she beat us to it. It is a heavy wool sock and practically the same as ours, but it is definitely Donegal socks he is wearing.

"It is a rare craft which has passed down generations. The natural ruggedness of the product is a reflection of the colours and patterns of the wild and beautiful scenery of this region.

"With the downturn, we felt we had to go further afield and seek out new European and American customers, and we were quite surprised with J Crew getting in contact with us; it opens up a whole new export market.

"Great pride is taken to keep the tradition alive in every pair we manufacture. Our biggest problem now is capacity as we have customers screaming for more stock," added Breslin.

'People like unique things and stores are crying out for craft items'

Currently, Donegal Socks has six staff. However, it is now planning a major expansion and has acquired three state-of-the-art Italian-built Evolution sock-weaving machines. These machines can literally beat the socks off competitors and outperform the Chinese textile giants, who, up until now, have totally dominated the market. Breslin believes that the new generation of weaving machines will be "the end of the Chinese socks".

As a manufacturer, Breslin has witnessed another quiet revolution: namely huge mass-production retail orders going in favour of smaller, more diverse orders of niche products, a development which he believes will help smaller Irish manufacturers enormously.

"The day of stores purchasing big volumes are gone; it has gone out of fashion. People like unique things and stores are now crying out for craft items, especially anything Irish made, which are very much sought after.

"The big retailers want smaller volumes which sell out quicker, and they now order more frequently, which suits smaller Irish manufacturers. There is a huge market for niche markets -- it is the future -- and I believe there are very good times ahead."

Irish Independent

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