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Fabric designer Lou Brennan has given the Irish shawl a new lease of life

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Designer Lou Brennan has created beautiful linen head scarves with patterns from the Galway shawl, €175; loubrennan.com

Designer Lou Brennan has created beautiful linen head scarves with patterns from the Galway shawl, €175; loubrennan.com

Designer Lou Brennan has created beautiful linen head scarves with patterns from the Galway shawl, €175; loubrennan.com

The sepia-toned photograph of Peig Sayers I remember from school was so dreary that you could almost feel the damp off it. So I never noticed that the famous Dunquin woman was shrouded in one of the most sought-after and lovely legacy pieces of Irish dress - the shawl.

The Irish shawl was a square of crocheted or knitted cloth with a fringe, or 'scóga', and was for everyday use.

A heavier, woven 'seál mór', or Galway shawl, was kept for special occasions such as Fair Day or going to Mass and was often highly decorated and brightly coloured.

The shawl was often a marriage gift or handed down from mother to daughter, and was looked after meticulously. Occasionally it might be given as a parting gift to a woman who was emigrating to use as a wrap or a bedspread.

And over the years the shawl made its way into Irish culture - everyone from The Dubliners to soccer player Vinnie Jones in an X Factor sing-off has sung a version of 'The Galway Shawl', while artists Sean Keating and Grace and Paul Henry painted versions of them.

More recently, mosaic artist Barbara Derrane, sister of RTE presenter Maura, drew on the tradition of shawl wearing as inspiration for her vividly coloured pieces.

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Lou Brennan design head scarf

Lou Brennan design head scarf

Lou Brennan design head scarf

An essential piece of Irish costume history then.

So it was a surprise to me to learn that one of the most popular versions of the 'seál mór' - the paisley shawl - was actually not Irish at all. It was woven in Paisley in Scotland and imported into Ireland by the Galway Woollen Mills where the 'scóga' was added.

The fringing, it turns out, was the only native part of the shawl.

In fact, the paisley shawl first became fashionable in the 18th century when the ill-fated French Queen Marie Antoinette took to wearing a Kashmir version, inspiring a European-wide trend.

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Lou Brennan design head scarf

Lou Brennan design head scarf

Lou Brennan design head scarf

The Scottish mills at Paisley came out with a version and Queen Victoria bought 17 of them for herself, and began a tradition of giving them to other members of the royal family for weddings and birthdays.

During the 20th century, though, our Galway shawl declined in popularity as pashminas and shrugs took off.

Until designer Lou Brennan came along and breathed new life into the design of the fabric. A textile designer, Lou was born in England of Irish parents and now lives in a boathouse beside Lough Conn in Mayo.

Over the years, Lou has designed fabrics for fashion folk such as John Rocha and Alexander McQueen, among others. But the paisley shawl has become her passion: "If a photograph of Fair Day appears, I'm out with the magnifying glass trying to find out if it's a Galway shawl, trying to see the pattern, whether it's fringed."

She has added a modern take, the fabrics are lighter and more adaptable than the paisley shawls of Peig's day, and they also come in much more wearable forms - pocket squares, scarves and bandannas. Her hand-painted patterns are influenced by the distinctive paisley designs but also by Carrickmacross lace patterns.

They are printed onto fine mohair and silk in Italy and the cloth comes back for Lou to cut and roll the edges or, on the larger pieces, to form the eyelash fringe that is part of the fabric rather than stitched on as in the original 'scógá'.

The advent of colourised photographs shows our Irish shawls in their true colours along with the red petticoat skirts, or 'sciorta dearg olánn', that they were often worn with.

These images paint a different picture from the one I saw as a kid in Irish class.

And it's certainly not the image of a stoic woman with "one foot in the grave".

Instead they throw a line back to the Kashmir shawls beloved of Marie Antoinette.

Women in bright patterns not drab shawls. Prepared to put our own twist on things, a fringe even.

Life in colour is a completely different thing.

Sunday Indo Business