Wednesday 21 August 2019

Tweed, once a twee buy for tourists, is back in our homes and making an impact - architect Roisin Murphy

Tweed, once a twee buy for tourists, is back in our homes and making an impact, writes architect Roisin Murphy

Crannac sofa by Bowden in Studio Donegal by Vintage Hub
Crannac sofa by Bowden in Studio Donegal by Vintage Hub

A rough woollen cloth, home spun, dyed in earthy colours, made on the western seaboard of Ireland and Scotland. Tweed. For a cloth traditionally so rough to the hand, the fact that tweed has survived in use for over 200 years says something about its extraordinary beauty and allure.

In fact, the word 'tweed' is as loaded as 'silk'. For Irish people, it holds a place somewhere up there with our butter or linen - a symbol of the things we love about Ireland.

Lovers of tweed tend to have an allegiance to a particular weave house. You might be a fan of Foxford Woollen Mills or loyal to Avoca Handweavers, the oldest of them all, or part of the tribe who love the recently established Stable of Ireland.

The hip interiors shop Industry has begun to commission its own weaves, while Article, Kilkenny Design and House of Ireland all have their own collections of throws, blanket and cushions, selecting a herringbone over a stripe, a speckle in navy over one in grey. There seems to be no limit to the imagination of weavers and retailers on the new Irish high street.

Tub chair by Bowden in Studio Donegal by Vintage Hub
Tub chair by Bowden in Studio Donegal by Vintage Hub

While accessories are staples, particularly for the tourist market, a more recent trend is the appearance of tweed on furniture. Furniture designer Simon O'Driscoll is producing modern pieces upholstered with Stable of Ireland tweeds, as are Foxford Woollen Mills and more recently Irish company Finline Furniture.

Until very recently, if a chair or sofa was upholstered in tweed, it was usually for export, aimed at the tourist and an expensive niche market. But Studio Donegal, a family-run business in Donegal, is finding a new demand for tweed from the home market.

Owners Tristan Donaghy and his wife Anne took over the hand-looming business from his parents 20 years ago. He says all their upholstery fabric was going abroad, either to Denmark where it works well with hygge, or to places like the upmarket fabric store in New York, Cowtan & Tout. None was used in Ireland - but that has changed.

Upholstery tweed, says Tristan, has a rougher texture than that of a throw. (The fabrics have fabulous names like Black Face and French Nougat.) It is cut with native wool and carded more roughly to raise its nap.

It has a distinctly textured look, although some upholstery cloths can look and feel more like linen. Tristan explains they use Merino wool from Spain in their weave to soften the coarser Irish wools. (They have experimented with different wools, including dog hair.)

Why not source wool from Merino sheep in Ireland? The answer lies in our grass. If a Merino sheep was reared here, it would soon produce the same coarse wool as the Irish Blackface Donegal sheep, because our rich grass promotes keratin in the wool, making it thicker in diameter and scratchier. Thence all Merino wool has to be imported.

Besides the beauty of the weave, there is a good reason why tweed is treasured. It has a very high Martindale test result, an indicator of how many rubs a cloth can withstand before it wears out. The higher the result, the stronger the cloth.

Studio Donegal's tweed rates between 45,000 and 50,000 rubs. A top-quality Sanderson cotton would have 15,000 to 20,000.

Their tweeds have now been taken up by the Vintage Hub, one of the biggest names in Irish furniture and design, who are matching the fabrics with reconditioned mid-century pieces to produce stunning contemporary seating.

Some of the furniture is Irish-made too - such as the Meath designers Crannac, who produced beautiful items in the 1960s and 1970s.

And when you take the long view, the price is reasonable - about €1,800 for a sofa that has been stripped, re-foamed, polished and, of course, re-upholstered in a fabric that will one day be an heirloom piece.

The wait time for hand-loomed fabric can be six to 10 weeks, something to factor in if you're an impulse buyer.

Still, some things are worth waiting for..

Sunday Independent

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