Wednesday 24 October 2018

A looming presence at the RDS knit show

Reporter David Medcalf found himself talking yarn in Arklow with Pippa Doyle and Elizabeth Condren as they prepared to take the RDS by storm with their butterfly looms, turning balls of wool into crafty creations

Liz Condren and Patricia Doyle.
Liz Condren and Patricia Doyle.

Many businesses have particular peaks and troughs in demand for their products. Retailers of ice-cream cones call in extra staff when the weather forecasters predict summer sunshine. The chocolate Santa Claus trade experiences a predictable surge in sales each December. And the founders of the Butterfly Loom company report that they are never busier than just around now.

Many customers tend to keep their hands in their pockets throughout the rest of the year. But come the Knitting & Stitching Show each November, they are ready to make their purchases. The event at the RDS in Ballsbridge is the principal showcase for the Arklow duo of Patricia (please call her Pippa) and Elizabeth. That is Elizabeth Condren and Pippa Doyle, entrepreneurs and crafts enthusiasts.

The Knitting and Stitching Show is a phenomenon attracting thousands of people to Dublin. More than 100 stalls will be jammed into the Simmonscourt Extension for the four days as the 2017 version runs from November 9 to 12.

Strange to report, the ladies from Arklow are the only County Wicklow exhibitors due to be in action. They will be selling their butterfly looms, pieces of equipment which are not quite as complicated as they sound. These looms are simple hinged boards designed to allow their owners turn out simple woollen items with minimum effort.

Elizabeth describes herself as a hard-working mother of four who hails from Clogga close to the Wexford border. She has her own enterprise on Main Street, embroidering logos on to uniforms and selling wool. Pippa comes from Redcross and her speciality is flowers, having been involved in floristry for at least three decades.

Elizabeth, by her own confession is not one to sit on her hands, blessed with plenty of energy. She first learned the art of knitting from her mother who used to turn out fashion wear for Avoca Handweavers.

'I picked it up from her,' she acknowledges gratefully. 'I have been knitting since I was tiny.' When her own children were small, she routinely used to produce 'bits and pieces' for the brood. She keeps her hand - specifically her nimble fingers - in by making cardigans or Christmas scarves and is delighted to note that knitting seems to be back in fashion.

When on a school run, she brings a ball of yarn with her so that she will not be idle while waiting for classes to end.

Indeed, she has been known to roll up half an hour early on purpose so that she may finish some item on which she is working. Hers is the car with a ball of yarn and a pair of needles perpetually on the dashboard.

Elizabeth also finds time to serve as a volunteer cub leader with the 9th Wicklow scout group. In this role, she took it into her head recently to try introducing her charges (both boys and girls) to the world of plain and purl.

She discovered that some of the lads were natural knitters but it proved impossible to keep them at it. Too many stitches were dropped in the scout den where the emphasis at the weekly meetings tends to be on more physical activity. Still, she makes no apology for attempting to spread her crafty gospel.

Pippa claims that she also came to the loom business through knitting having taught herself the rudiments in Redcross as a very young girl. She was no more than eight years old and playing out in the garden when she picked up a pair of twigs and a piece of cord.

She certainly does not remember being given any formal knitting lessons at school. Though not quite as compulsive a knitter as her colleague, she continues to practise the art to this day whenever she has the time.

Baby cardigans for relatives and friends are her speciality. Her first serious, adult job was commuting from Arklow to Bray and work at the Nixdorf computer factory. But she came back closer to home before too long to work in a flower shop on Main Street for many years.

This eventually closed down but she kept the floral faith. When the chance came, courtesy of the Wicklow Hospice Foundation, a few years ago to open a temporary, pop-up shop in Abbey Lane, Pippa jumped at the opportunity.

There by happy chance she found that her pop-up neighbour was Elizabeth Condren and the pair struck up a sisterly bond. They remain neighbours for the purpose of business, though now in Main Street rather than Abbey Lane.

Butterfly Loom dates back four years when the pair were looking for 'something different' as Elizabeth puts it. Pippa's recollection is that the initiative was taken when she wanted to make a blanket for a recently arrived baby girl. She consulted her friend and they discussed an old-style, board-and-nails contraption which used to be popular. Nail boards, often homemade, involved winding yarn around nails.

They discovered that a more sophisticated version was now available, properly engineered and hinged to allow the removal of completed items without unravelling. Contact was made with a woman called Mandy, who distributes the looms in the UK.

Courtesy of Mandy, the first one arrived from England and they discovered they were able to run off an attractive blanket for the child inside an hour and a half with no intricate knitting or crochet skills involved. It is possible to embellish the finished product with a crocheted border but it looks well enough as it is.

They had stumbled on something which made being creative relatively easy.

'We were looking to make something, not to sell something,' stresses Elizabeth - but once they had worked the loom, they quickly saw commercial potential.

An arrangement was reached with their English contact - whom they have never met - which gave the Arklow duo the right to supply the Irish market with butterfly looms. They were so confident of the appeal that they signed up to take a stall at Knit and Stitch 2014.

It turned out that they were on the right track though they made one serious mistake on the first day - they forgot to pack a lunch. They laugh now as they recall how they were so busy that there was simply not time to take a break and they went through the day fuelled by nothing more than a couple of cups of coffee.

The show which takes over the vastness of the RDS's Simmonscourt Extension each year is a four day phenomenon. It attracts thousands upon thousands of home crafts enthusiasts all eager to talk needlework, beads, tapestry, yarns, design, fabrics from morning until night.

The Condren and Doyle combination found themselves in their element, caught up in the excitement with their one small stall in the midst of more than 100 others.

The attendance is overwhelmingly female, drawn from all over Ireland and for many of the women the trip to the capital is the highlight of their year. Busloads arrive from Galway, from Longford, from all over, many of those on board having put aside money ready to spend at the show if they see something that catches their fancy.

Pippa and Elizabeth put on a show for the ladies, turning out woollen squares on the spot: 'They are amazed at how easily it can be done,' says Elizabeth, 'with any kind of wool. I love the looming.'

The stall is usually sold out by the Sunday afternoon and they expect that trade will be as brisk as ever this week and that they will be sold out by the Sunday afternoon.

They love chatting to customers. Some of the show goers come to the Butterfly Loom stand in nostalgic mood, recalling how they remember the more primitive 'nail boards'.

Discussion regularly turns to production of cushion covers, table mates, chair pads, scarves and the likes, as well as joining squares together to make bed throws.

'We have made tea cosies,' boast the Arklow ladies with a smile, giving their sales pitch extolling a pastime which can be adapted to use up odd balls of yarn and which is forgiving of breaks in the wool.

'They love displaying how easy it is to take the finished article off the loom thanks to the hinges on the back of the board.

Repeat business is a sign of a healthy business and they expect to see some familiar faces, customers who want to add a board of a different size to the one they already own and they have the money set aside to make the purchase.

'The buzz at the knitting show is great,' says Pippa, 'though we don't get to eat for three days and we certainly don't get a chance to looks at all the other stalls in the RDS.' She and her comrade are delighted to report that interest in home crafts appears to be on the rise and not just confined to the month of November.

They also run a web-site all year round and they are popular speakers, especially on the ICA circuit.

'When you get going on the loom, the world is your oyster,' insists Elizabeth.

Wicklow People