How Irish tweed became chic
From the uniform of peasants to the darling of couturiers, tweed has been transformed across the centuries. Now, its resurgence in fashion and interiors is good news for Irish companies who never faltered in their love of weaving the warp and weft, writes our Fashion Editor
Charlotte and Patrick Temple from Donegal are fifth generation tweed aficionados. At 33 and 31 respectively, they wear and talk about tweed in a very contemporary way.
It's quite a family heritage to get behind and drive. Patrick was a marine engineer while Charlotte was in the Irish army and led an army battalion in Liberia aged 22. But both joined the family 'firm' which has a rich history and heritage.
Magee was established in 1866 and was originally a small draper's shop in Donegal, buying and selling handwoven tweed. The owner, John Magee, was a cousin of the current generation's great-grandfather, Robert Temple, who had the wisdom to buy the business in 1900. Now, 116 years later it's a fourth- and fifth generation business run by chairman Lynn Temple with his daughter, Charlotte, as director of retail and design, while his son, Patrick, is CEO of Magee Weaving.
Charlotte's army career was, she laughs, "the perfect training for clothing and design. I joined the army just after school and I spent my time in the Curragh and in Liberia in west Africa. It was after that, when I was in London, that I was really inspired by retail and different brands and that triggered me to go back into the business.
"I genuinely wasn't thinking about coming into the business. It was not something that I would have thought would be my ultimate career, but London definitely changed that. It's funny how things go. For me, my army career definitely was about leadership, management of people and organisation. I found being in a uniform for four years really quite soul-destroying because it zaps your personality a little bit."
For centuries, itchy, rugged, hand-woven tweed was the uniform of the peasantry and they dyed wool from the household sheep with brews of lichen and moss. It morphed into the performance attire of the sporting gentry and popped up everywhere from golfing to the hunting/shooting/fishing set. It was Parisian couturier Coco Chanel who gifted tweed an iconic look when she used textural blends for her signature suits with collarless, edge-to-edge jackets. In Ireland, a brace of leading Irish designers, from Elizabeth James of Cork to Irene Gilbert and Ib Jorgensen, looked to interesting Irish tweeds in shades of green with flecks of orange and more recently aqua, to dress Aer Lingus cabin crew.
Nowadays, tweed has a contemporary cachet in the fashion world and is fast becoming the fabric du jour for lots of haute couturier fashion designers who order bespoke textural fabrics where the warp and weft are woven using a variety of different kinds of yarns and threads.
This AW16 couture season, Irish tweeds with raw edges and delightfully uneven salt and pepper blends and random twills are being used by high street giants and couturiers alike.
Chatting with Patrick Temple, I enquire: "Did I read that Magee Donegal tweed is on the walls in Ralph Lauren shops?"
"You could have, you could have, I'm saying nothing," is his amused, polite reply. Non-disclosure agreements are the norm in the high-end couture scene but I can assure you that lots of those couturier catwalk shows you see from the US, Japan and Europe this season will feature Donegal tweed.
"Where we would see tweed today is not where people would have seen tweed in its traditional sense, which was the grandmother's coat that might have had some bright colours in it, was also quite rough and maybe not that luxurious," explains Patrick. "Today, what we do is much more luxurious. It is a much cleaner product, it is much softer."
Interest in Magee modern-day tweeds is immense. Woven with heritage influences they don't look like tweed in the conventional sense and the luxury yarns create a very sophisticated product. Was it always presumed that Patrick would go into the family firm?
"I was always very keen to go into it and I worked there when I was younger. I suppose when you are brought up in something, it is naturally very close to the heart. I worked beforehand in marine engineering in the field of wave energy and alternative energy before coming into Magee's two years ago, into clothing first and now, weaving."
While the fashion focus is big at Magee - they are expanding their womenswear offer and have opened a flagship store on Dublin's South Anne Street - homewares is expanding and their bigger herringbones and the Donegal designs lend themselves nicely to interiors, says Patrick.
Hand weavers still play a part in their workforce of 50. The traditional tweed market as we knew it of old is very small now, Patrick concedes. "It is much more an urban, sophisticouture market and we are still maintaining all the heritage from the past while obviously bringing it forward to a contemporary market."
Just over the border in Co Down, Mario Sierra is running the Rostrevor-based Mourne Textiles with his mother, master weaver Karen Hay-Edie. It's a third generation passion for tweed. The company was founded by Karen's Norwegian mother, Gerd Hay-Edie, a truly pioneering woman who by an accident of war came to settle in Ireland in 1947.
Mario paints a fascinating picture of growing up in the studio with the hypnotic sound of the clack of shuttles.
"It definitely feels like textures are back," says Mario Sierra, who studied textiles and worked as a sound recordist, before joining the family business five years ago. From their heyday when top Irish couturiers like Sybil Connolly and Sheila Mullally and interiors brands like Robin Day and Conran were commissioning products, business slowed down. The weavers were let go and Karen kept things going with workshops after the tourist buses stopped calling. Gerd had chosen Carlingford Lough because it reminded her of Norway, being almost like a Fjord, but when the troubles broke out, tourists were not thick on the ground on the border.
Mario explains how five years ago, his mother said, "I think I'm going to have to stop now", and it was at that point, he said, "OK, it's my turn now, can I get involved?"
"My mother has been passing on a lot of the skills she used when she ran the workshop in the '60s and '70s and she has been the link between the old and the new," says Mario, who splits his time between Ireland and London.
"I really wanted to find new sources for the yarn and together, we sourced new suppliers and had new yarns spun specifically for us. There was a lot of going into the archives, pulling out the yarns that were not available any more and having them re-spun specifically for our designs. We really did go right back to the sheep."
Discussing his approach to the business as a third generation participant, Mario says, "I didn't want to design by default and use what was available in the yarn store. I wanted to bring in new yarns and fibres and they needed to be softer. All of our tweed is made with merino so they are very soft, unlike old tweeds which were coarser yarns. The merino used in our tweeds is not Irish but it is spun traditionally at Donegal Yarns and they are fantastic."
In their archives, the family have fashion garments made by Sybil Connolly using Gerd's tweeds, especially her tactile 'shaggy dog' tweed about which couturier Connolly declared, "I can honestly say that I never believed that such an exciting effect could be achieved in a hand-loomed fabric!"
The good news is that this fascinating tweed is still available to order from Mourne Textiles today. Sybil Connolly also used Gerd's open weave, 'mended tweed,' so named because people thought it looked like mended socks. Fashion critics were enthralled and one wrote: "The threads are enormous, the weave as clumsy as bad darning, but the fabric that looks so primitive is cunningly subtle and soft."
Showing the courage to take his heritage into the future, Mario has also been on the receiving end of love from interiors firms. It's history repeating itself.
"Furnishing fabric is a new thing that we are bringing back. We have done a lot of work with the Danish furniture company Carl Hanson, which will be coming out in October, and on the homewares front, we have furnishing fabrics, and blankets and cushions made from couture tweeds.
"Because people are less likely to buy a length of fabric to make their own clothes, I've been finding other ways to use the tweed so people can still have them in their home and can actually see them.
"My thing is I just really want these fabrics to be seen and the designs to not get lost in the archives. It's a huge part of the business. I just really want the archives not to just be in my house, I want them to be out there so people can see and use the designs because I think they are stunning. A lot of the designs that we do are very basic, simple weave structures but what I personally love about the fabric is the layering of the colours and how the colours relate. It's the combinations that I love, the textures, the colours and the yarns," says Mario.
South of the border, Avoca's Pratt family have come far since 1974, when they bought an old mill in the village of Avoca, Co Wicklow.
In a €60m deal last January, Aramark acquired the Avoca company, with the exception of The Mill in Avoca which has been retained in the Pratt family.
The company is continually devising new blends of tweed and wools and we have an exclusive preview of its AW16 classic collection on pages 19-21. The big news from Avoca is that next January, they are introducing a new fashion label called Florence's Mill, named after Ivan Pratt's 10-year-daughter. The roll of generations in Ireland's tweed story continues.