Wednesday 16 October 2019

Homespun - making modern knitwear

Knitwear designer Pearl Reddington talks to Liadan Hynes about setting up your own fashion label, working from home, and the childhood that inspires her designs.

Knitwear designer Pearl Reddington at her studio in Dublin.
Knitwear designer Pearl Reddington at her studio in Dublin.

Driving down the road where knitwear designer Pearl Reddington lives feels slightly like entering somewhere a little magical. A perfectly preserved thatched cottage sits perched at the top of the street, among the semi-detached family homes. The road ends with a glimpse of the sea, and Dublin Bay. Pearl lives and works on the family property, nestled among trees, in a sort of Shomera unit, originally a studio, now adapted as a full-time home for her and her boyfriend.

"I don't think I could have done anything that wasn't creative. The lines for me between work and living are so blurred." Pearl graduated from NCAD in 2016, having studied fashion. This line of study wasn't always a given. "I was doing science until halfway through sixth year. I come from a creative family, and I think I'd always taken my artistic side for granted, not realised I could do something with it. I took a few weeks off school and did my portfolio, with help from my mam, my aunt, and my granny." Her mum is jewellery designer, Lisa Weir. The artist Grace Weir is her aunt.

"For my graduate collection I did primarily knits. That was really big for me; realising I can be a standalone knitwear designer, it doesn't have to be side-lined. I really want to do something positive for Irish knit, to make it quite modern and contemporary."

Most of her college friends have moved to London or New York, but specialising in knitwear has allowed Pearl to stay in Ireland. "There's no better place for me to be. People here respond to knitwear very well." The wool comes from Donegal and Pearl mostly knits the pieces herself.

After college she started off working part-time in Atrium, in the Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, which now stocks her line. She took custom orders for knitwear on the side. "Slowly, without even realising it, I kept getting more orders. Almost all through Instagram."

Working in retail gave her a grounding in what customers actually want. "When I graduated college I was still quite student-y in my approach. Now, I've realised quite how important your raw materials are. As a knitwear designer you're essentially turning string into a garment. So if the string isn't beautiful at the start, you won't have a lovely garment. Working in retail I realised how important the handle (feel) of a garment is."

She quit her job in the face of a few major deadlines. Getting a fashion label off the ground is notoriously challenging. A jumper could take at least two-and-a-half days to make. And then there is the cost of materials. Last summer Pearl won a Future Makers award from the Design & Crafts Council of Ireland. "That was a really good boost for me, to feel 'I'm an emerging maker now, not a graduate'." She has been granted the same award again this year, which led to her then winning a €10,000 RDS Craft Awards Bursary, awarded to Irish craft makers in order to enable them to further their craft skills. "Winning this grant has been the push that means I can release my business to its full potential, and just go for it. I couldn't have sustained it; I would have had to go back to getting a part-time job. It means I can do it. And not ask my mam I if want to buy more wool. I feel safe now, and like I'm making the right decision by staying here."

For her CREATE collection in Brown Thomas, launching this week, she has designed oversized cardigans and jumpers in her signature colours of navy, grey and neon yellow, with geometric patterns. She's also doing some trousers, using linen from Wexford. The underlying inspiration for her work is the incursion of the industrial into the natural Irish landscape. "I interrupt the grain of my knit, which would be a soft muted palette, with a blunt stripe of neon just to shock, give a sense of unease, that these jumpers aren't just beautiful, they're slightly disturbed. Something that might look wrong but is actually very deliberate."

Her family comes from the Sligo Leitrim area; she spent summer in college there. "The summer before I went into final year, the fields around us were cleared for forestry. I remember seeing all these fields that were my childhood memories just being interrupted by all these bulldozers. The tracks they left in the fields gave me my inspiration."

Pearl uses a hand-driven machine from the Seventies, originally owned by The Grafton Academy. As large as a big piano, it sits in a small room off the main living area in the unit she and her boyfriend live in.

"Having a creative job can be so rewarding; you are creating something that comes from inside you, so if the feedback is good, it's the best feeling in the world. But on the other hand it can be really soul-destroying. I don't think there's any other career where you're so invested in your work. It's so personal, any criticism is very tough. It's a tough job but you can get a career out of it if you work very hard."

CREATE begins at Brown Thomas, Grafton Street, Dublin, next Tuesday. See

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