Irish Fashion: Textile & Clothing

The Irish fashion and textile industry has played a huge part in Ireland’s social, cultural and economic development. Throughout its history Ireland has moved from an agrarian, to industrial, to a service or knowledge based economy. The Irish textile and fashion industry has not only followed that movement but in many respects has both caused and effected such development.

Ireland's main economic resource is its large fertile pastures. There has always been an important interrelationship between Ireland’s agricultural and textile industries. The textile industry relied on resources provided by agriculture, such as wool and flax, while the farming industry often relied on the textile and clothing industry as a market for its produce but also as a source of supplementary revenue and employment during the winter months and poor harvests.

Ireland’s two dominant indigenous textiles are wool and linen. Wool has been woven in Ireland since the late Bronze Age. The earliest known surviving piece of Irish woven wool was found in County Antrim and dates from approximately 750 BC. The piece shows considerable skills in weaving had already been accomplished by the Irish at this time. Irish woollen cloth is arguably one of Ireland’s first manufactured exports having been successfully exported from medieval times.

The Industrial Revolution occurred during the late 1700’s coinciding with the arrival of the French Huguenots who contributed to the expansion and development of flax cultivation and the growth of the Irish linen industry.

Lace was first produced in Ireland in the 1730’s. Lady Arabella Denny, philanthropist, used her social and political connections to support the development of the new industry and support sales of Irish Lace abroad.

Ireland suffered extreme social and economic hardships during the 19th century. In an effort to alleviate the extreme poverty and deprivation various initiatives to stimulate the economy and create employment were undertaken. In 1820, Mrs Grey Porter, having recognised the potential of textile craft to provide much needed employment for young women in rural Ireland, established a Lace School in Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan. Various other lace schools were established in different parts of the country in and around this time. The impact that many of these initiatives had is difficult to express. Culturally these lace schools left an astounding variety and quality of lace, such as Carrickmacross, Limerick and Kenmare Lace. Irish lace was then and still is very highly regarded and has been both commissioned by Queen Victoria and also adorned Princess Diana’s wedding dress.  However it is the socio economic impact of these lace schools that is truly remarkable. Schemes such as these provided employment and sources of income in rural communities. The lacemaking schools consequently contributed greatly to many families in these areas surviving the famine. These initiatives also began to change the role and standing of women in rural Ireland from dependent to breadwinner.

The Great Famine (1845-1852) was a defining moment in the history of Ireland. Its effects permanently changed the island's demographic, political and cultural landscape. Its impact on Irelands Textile and Garment Industry was so monumental that it irrevocably changed the industry worldwide.

In 1850, in an effort to offer some relief to the displaced and unemployed famine survivors of Limerick City and surrounding areas, and to take advantage of the newly invented sewing machine Peter Tait founded Peter Tait’s Factory, the first ready-made clothing factory in the World, in a small premises just off William Street in Limerick City. In doing so Tait changed the clothing industry forever. Previous to this items of clothing were produced from start to finish by highly skilled tailors or dressmakers. Tait realised he could quickly train unskilled workers to do just one or two simple tasks repeatedly, instead of having them spend years and years learning every step in the making of a suit. He applied this new system of a minute subdivision of operations – still a novelty in any industry – to garment manufacturing for the first time. He also installed the first power-driven sewing machines in Europe. Within a few years his factory employed 1,000 workers, most of whom were displaced famine survivors. This idea was so successful that clothing manufacturers came from London and Leeds to study this revolutionary factory. Peter Tait’s Factory manufactured the British Army uniforms for the Crimean war and also produced uniforms for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.

The Congested Districts Board was established in 1891 to help elevate rural poverty in the west of Ireland through the development of agriculture, forestry, weaving, spinning and other potential rural industries. It combined with the Irish Industries Association in 1893. This organisation aimed to provide financial help to those aiming to set up a new industry. They also supported and developed existing industry by providing financial and marketing assistance to groups such as the Donegal weavers in Ardara who received loans of new looms and help with their marketing.

The bearing of the textile industry in some areas of Ireland was so great that it has both shaped and named several town and streets around the country. Several towns in Ireland feature streets with names such as Linen Hall Street, Weavers Row and Mill Street. In Ulster the linen industry was concentrated in the region between the River Lagan and the River Bann in an area known as the Linen Homelands. In 1915 some 75,000 people were employed in the linen industry there and the Linen Homelands was the largest linen-producing region in the world.

Ireland gained independence in 1922. The years that followed independence created a surge of pride and interest in Irish design and textiles. There was an emphasis on buying Irish goods and a renewed appreciation for the superior quality of Irish textiles and craft.

In 1938 the Grafton Academy of Fashion Design, the first fashion design school in Ireland was established.

The 1950’s are often referred to as the golden years of Irish design. Various factors contributed to the success of the Irish fashion industry at this time. There was a surge in national pride and consumption of Irish design by the Irish. Irish designers began to collaborate with textile and craft producers here and hold their fashion shows at home.

The biggest success of this era was Sybil Connolly. Connolly trained as a dressmaker in London. She began to work at Richard Alan on Grafton St, Dublin at the outbreak of the Second World War. At Richard Alan Connolly worked under the French Canadian designer Gaston Mallet on the houses couture line. When Mallet left in 1952 Connolly took over, designing the couture line under her own name. Sybil Connolly loved Irish textiles and Irish textile craft. Her collections, season after season, explored and celebrated various facets of Ireland’s indigenous fabrics and techniques. She created exquisitely tailored suits from Irish tweeds custom woven for her label. She made blouses from Irish crochet lace. She is probably best known, however, for her work in linen. Connolly developed a technique of using eight metres of finely pleated handkerchief linen to produce one metre of her distinctive and beautiful pleated, un-crushable cloth. The garments made from this cloth were very much sought after. Indeed Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis wore a pleated Irish linen dress by Sybil Connolly when she sat for her official Whitehouse Portrait in 1970.

The success of this period can also be in part attributed to Government support of the industry. In 1952, An Coras Trachtala Teoranta (The Irish Export Board) brought the Philadelphia Fashion Group to Dublin to see Connolly’s collection . In Autumn 1953, Sybil Connolly was featured on the cover of Life Magazine, with the headline “Irish Invade Fashion World”. During the mid 1950’s the buyers and journalists who visited France, England and Italy every season began to visit Ireland too. In 1956 the March edition of Harper’s Bazaar had printed on its cover ‘Spring Collections Paris London Dublin Italy’. Other designers such as Irene Gilbert and Neilli Mulcahy, also gained positive international recognition and press coverage during this time.

In the 1960’s the Irish government commissioned a review of the state of Irish design and manufacturing as a preparation for the establishment of the Kilkenny Design Workshops. The consequent report identified Donegal Tweed as one of the most valuable resources of the Irish design industry .
The textile and garment manufacturing industry remained a significant employer during the 1980’s. The Loretta Bloom label, founded in Limerick in the early 1980s produced high quality tailored garments. The clothing company, Fruit of the Loom established in Ireland in 1987 employed more than 3,500 people at its peak .
In 2005 a report commissioned by the Irish Clothing and Textile Alliance (ICATA) documented the significant decrease in both output and employment in the textile and clothing sector. Between 1990 and 2005 production had decreased by 75%. In 1995, the industry employed just under 20,000 people; in 2005 that had fallen to 4,975. The report attributed this long term decline to the high cost of labour and other non-wage costs and a general loss of competitiveness. The report urges a revaluation of the industry and Irelands place within it. It suggest that Ireland’s current role is more knowledge or design-led with greater training in the management of the supply chain and outsourcing the manufacturing of garments and accessories.

Another important finding from this report suggest that while output and employment in the textile and clothing sector have decreased drastically, retail sales of clothing and textiles have significantly increased. During the Celtic Tiger Irish people began to be perceived, and consider themselves as more affluent. Ireland became an attractive and lucrative market for many international design brands and retailers. 

The Irish clothing and textile industry has played a significant role in Ireland development in both social and economic terms. In Ireland’s infancy it helped the country develop from an agrarian to an industrial society. However, the social and economic success that it has helped build has paradoxically eroded the capacity of the fashion industry here. In 2014 Ireland is very much a knowledge or service based economy and the Irish fashion industry has had to adapt. The market which it serves, and in which it competes, is now a truly global one. Advances in technology have intensified price competition while making consumers better informed and more aware of various issues within the industry.

In response to these new conditions the Irish Fashion Industry has developed and adapted. Irish fashion now primarily competes in the ready-to-wear and luxury end of the market. In June 2011, Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture published a special issue on the topic of ‘New European Fashion Centres,’ among the articles featured was ‘Creativity in the Margins: Identity and Locality in Ireland’s Fashion Journey,’ by Dr. Sile de Cléir. Dr de Cléir seminal article was a comprehensive review of Ireland’s relationship with fashion, both as producers and consumers. The article looked at Ireland as a peripheral fashion centre, being influenced by and in turn influencing larger global fashion centres.

Various initiatives have been undertaken in the previous decade to adapt to Ireland’s new role in the fashion industry. Small production facilities, such as The Fashion Hothouse, have been established to facilitate small scale and sampling production for Irish designers. The Fashion Hothouse is full service facility, providing Irish Fashion Designers with a complete suite of fashion design, sampling and production services, provided by some of Ireland’s most highly skilled operators. The Fashion Hothouse describes itself as the last outpost in the battle against cultural homogeneity and the associated perils of the fast fashion industry. In order to preserve and develop the skills needed for the industry Irelands fashion colleges continue to place a heavy emphasis on learning sewing, pattern cutting and garment construction skills.  In April 2011 The Council of Irish Fashion Designers (CIFD) was launched. The CIFD was established to act as a representative body and to promote the interests of its member Fashion Designers in Ireland. In 2013, Louis Copeland, Ireland’s best known tailor opened the Louis Copeland Tailoring Academy in an effort to develop and preserve tailoring skills in Ireland.  In response to Ireland’s new role as a lucrative market for international brands and fast fashion retailer’s organisations such as Redress have been established to promote better & more sustainable fashion practice and consumption here in Ireland.

Retaining graduate fashion designers is a major problem for the Irish fashion industry. Each year approximately 100 students graduate. A substantial quantity of those will emigrate soon after to fashion centres such as London, New York and Paris. Different areas of the Irish fashion industry have begun initiatives to retain, develop and prosper from its creative capital in an effort to rejuvenate and re-stimulate the industry here.

One such initiative is the Irish Fashion Incubator Ltd. Due to open in September 2015, the Irish Fashion Incubator is an innovative fashion development delivering affordable studio space in a high street retail environment in Limerick, Ireland. Modelled on the Limerick Institute of Technology’s Hartnett Acceleration Centre in Moylish, which provides space for small to medium sized enterprises, the Fashion Incubator will provide studio and retail space for up to 100 fashion students and graduates. The primary aim of the centre is retain and nurture fashion design graduates in Limerick and create employment. The incubator will educate and facilitate graduate designers by providing free-of-charge, wrap around support services during their first year in business.

The narrative and history of the Irish clothing and textile industry has transcended economic and industrial significance and has become part of the culture and heritage of Ireland. Today the Irish fashion industry continues its conversation with contemporary Irish and global life.