Running a small artisan business reminds me a bit of the famous Alan Sillitoe story, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, about the courage and independent spirit of the hero.
Artisan producers, be it food or crafts, are incredibly courageous. All we tend to see is their end product, forgetting totally the hours of often lonely work; maybe a shortage of funds; anxiety and contemplation as to whether their design or product will be the right one. Will it sell? Will it appeal to the general public?
Nowadays, with the internet, it's easier for them to reach out to the world, but it is even better if they band together in an area to do so. It gives them a collective voice and the support of people who understand their difficulties and what they are trying to achieve. I recently met a group of craftspeople who are part of the Donegal Designer Makers network, which was founded in 2009, and has members across all disciplines including jewellery, art, baskets, furniture, knitwear, ceramics, textiles, batik and photography.
Marina Hamilton - an artist from St Johnston near Lifford in Co Donegal - covers the mediums of painting, sculpture and ceramics, through her doughty bulls, classical horses, soft-eyed cattle and other wonderful creatures that capture her imagination in wild and beautiful Donegal. Marina says that when she was young, she wanted to be a jockey or an artist. "I hated school and I actually went off to be a jockey. However, while I was waiting for the trainer to come and meet me at 3pm, having been there from 10am, I thought to myself, 'hang on Marina, you're a girl, you're from Donegal, you've no horsey connections and what are you going to do when you're 50?' So I studied in Derry and then went to Belfast where I did my degree in ceramics."
Marina says she was very lucky in being able to set up business shortly after she graduated in 1996. "I sold out my whole degree show and I got a big commission to do nine trophy presentation pieces for a large three-day show-jumping event in Fermanagh in Necarne Castle. With the money from that and my degree show, I bought a kiln and was straight into business. I love animals, I love their characters, their expressions, their personalities, I try to get through their psyche." See marinahamilton.net
Donal Sweeney of Rathlin Knitwear in Kilcar, Co Donegal, told me they use a wide range of new and traditional types of raw materials, including a signature line in Donegal-tweed wool which is hand-loomed into sweaters, scarves and hats. Their tunic style is based on the traditional fisherman's jumper and features heritage stitching, with many of the garments being hand-finished by home-workers. "We sell to retail outlets and export to the USA, Germany, Italy and now Japan. We are part of the Design & Crafts Council's Creative Island group for genuine Irish products, which features at Showcase at the RDS in January each year. This is what buyers are after - an Irish product that they can source down to the ground."
Donal says they have now attracted a lot of Japanese customers, so he recently visited Japan. The big thing the Japanese want to know is all about the product and the materials and where they are made. "In our case, we are very fortunate because the raw materials are made in Donegal, with the Donegal-tweed effect to reflect the landscape. They have now also asked us to make some things to their design." Contact email@example.com
Eddie Doherty, who does amazing handwoven tweeds, is a very interesting man. "I've been a handweaver since 1956 - I was 17 back then. Ardara was classed as the home of the handweaving and, at that age in Ardara, if you didn't weave, there was no other work. We had a family-run bar where I was living and I started weaving to earn a few bob at the time."
Eddie creates the most exquisite throws in scrumptious colours of fuchsia pink, turquoise and lime, as well as classy browns and creams in great jackets and wraps. "We have supplied the Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore with throws and the Wild Honey Inn in Lisdoonvarna. We export a lot to the US."
Eddie says it is very hard to get handweavers nowadays. "Most of them were almost as old as myself," he says with a laugh. He also has the cosiest of slippers, which are made for him by Mary Doyle in Bagenalstown, Co Carlow. Go and visit Eddie; he says he is available seven days a week. See handwoventweed.com
Hannah McGuinness is making very cool contemporary jewellery in her studio in Glenties. Hannah qualified from NCAD in craft and design and set up her business in 1999. She combines precious and alternative materials, resulting in pieces that are completely individual and different. "I work like an artist, where literally everything is hand-made using precious metals, Perspex and semi-precious stones. I like a lot of colour, and the transparency from frosted Perspex with silver and gold appeals to me as well."
As creative director of Donegal Designer Makers, Hannah curates two exhibitions a year for the group, one in summer and one in the autumn. Hannah works a lot to commission and through their own network group. See hannahmcguinness.com
Martin Gallagher lives in Sligo and is a furniture maker. "I trained originally as a carpenter and worked on construction sites. I then went on a PLC course in Sligo to study furniture design and this brought me on to Letterfrack for a couple of years. After that, I worked for a furniture company for another couple of years before setting up on my own."
He makes quite ingenious home accessories from €36, including key dishes, vases, tea-light holders, organisers, as well as bespoke furniture running up to €8,000-€10,000. Simplicity of design is his thing, using beautiful woods and finishes. He has the most wonderful walnut cabinet with suede-lined drawers, which had me drooling. These are statement pieces and an investment for life. See martingallagherfurniture.com
Sharon McDaid is based in Carndonagh on the Inishowen peninsula where she has her own Silver Birch Gallery & Studio. She describes herself as a contemporary Irish artist producing vibrant paintings of local scenery. She also took a degree in textiles and, as well as original paintings, she also sells prints of her work, which are very affordable. See sharonmcdaid.com
Emer O'Sullivan is another member of the Donegal group who is from Donegal, but lives and works in Dublin. She is producing very pretty ceramics that are quite different. "I went to college in Manchester where I did a contemporary crafts degree. I graduated in 2000. I do a lot of wedding presents, and the large jugs and bowls are good sellers for that." She also has brooches which, she says, sell well, as do milk jugs and sets. Look our for the pretty little heart soap dishes. See emerosullivanceramics.com
Naomi Fleury came to Ireland from Japan 15 years ago to teach Japanese culture in primary schools in Galway, Tipperary and Donegal, where she met her husband, Brian.
Now living in Killybegs, her work is totally different, with a huge range of brooches and Japanese papercraft, including wonderful colourful mini-chests and boxes.
"We have outlets throughout Ireland and in England and we also sell online," says Brian. See japanesepapercraft.com
Michelle McCarroll is a knitwear designer based outside Ramelton and operates under the name of Michi. "I've been in the knitwear business since 2004. The clothes are all hand-made by myself, with a mixture of machine and hand-knitted work."
Again, what makes Michi knitwear different are the individual ideas and designs, which are unique. As well as cardigans, dresses and scarves, there are also lovely bags, cushions and lamps, in wonderful colours. See michi.ie
Karen O'Kane of Koko Designs is a textile artist working with hand-painted silk and also living in Ramelton. "I'm originally from England. I relocated from Dublin to Donegal for the quality of life and started the business in 2010. I also worked in social care and psychology, so there was a huge amount of craft in that, but now I just work for myself. It's been a slow burn, but it is building up now. Irish people have been very loyal to the craft sector all the way through the recession."
Look out for her amazing dragonfly and peacock lampshades, which are real works of art, as well as beautiful long scarves and bags. See kokodesigns.ie
For further information on any of these craftspeople, see donegaldesignermakers.com
So, next time we are all shopping, maybe we should think of the crafts and small-business people in our areas, where we will get something unique, and something that really means a lot to both the producer and ourselves. Remember too, that most also sell online now.