Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all of our readers! To celebrate Ireland’s close link with textiles, we’re publishing an exclusive excerpt of “Loom Large” written by one of our Irish writers, Eleanor Flegg, now available in the current “Endeavours” issue of Selvedge. Here is the marvelous story of how one woman found her way to Ireland to embark upon a career in linen – one that is being revived with love today…
Weaving is in the blood in Ulster, the northernmost province of Ireland, the double stranded inheritance of two different traditions: the linen production industry in the east and the cottage-industry of Donegal tweed in the west. In Northern Ireland, craftspeople understand textiles with an affinity that seems to be embedded in their genes.
Mourne Textiles, producer of contemporary woven textiles, relates to both traditions and belongs to neither. The workshop sits at the foot of the Mourne Mountains on Carlingford Lough, a heartbreakingly beautiful glacial fjord that straddles the border between the north and south of Ireland. It is possible that in this part of the world, the founder of Mourne Textiles, Gerd Hay-Edie, discovered resonances of her native Norway.
Hay-Edie first came to Ireland in 1947. At the age of 42, she was already an experienced weaver and designer. She had previously designed textiles for the Welsh woollen mills and Nydalen, the largest textile mill in Norway, in the 1930s. Travelling with her English husband in the Far East, she learned to weave on local looms in China and designed 22 hand-woven rugs for the Palace of the Maharaja of Gwalior in Calcutta. Then, almost inexplicably, she came to Northern Ireland and stayed.
“She had met an Irishman in Kashmir and he had told her about the area,” says Mario Sierra, Hay-Edie’s grandson and the current owner of Mourne Textiles, “but the fact that she came here was largely an accident. I don’t think that she intended to set up a workshop – it was meant to be a design studio – but she couldn’t find weavers to make tweed to her designs, so she set up a workshop and trained them. She was a very capable person.”
Such initiative in 1950s Ireland was almost unheard of. It was unusual for a woman to launch a business, even more so for it to succeed, but Hay-Edie approached the British designer Robin Day with samples of her rugs. He wrote to her; “Of all the rugs which I have seen, only yours have got character enough to work as a background for my new furniture designs to be exhibited at La Triennale di Milano 1951. Please can you weave for this exhibition a rug of the approximate size: nine feet by seven feet…”
In the grey and black Milano rugs, the cross-cultural influences that informed Hay-Edie’s designs were already evident. “The loops in the weave are made with chopsticks,” Sierra explains. “It’s one of the techniques that she learnt in China but the weavers must have wondered…” Needless to say, chopsticks were not very common implements in Ireland in the 1950s.
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Photography © Tara Fisher