Born Gerd Bergersen in Trodheim, Norway in 1909, Gerd started her design journey aged 17 making tapestries. The young designer went on to study design and hand-weaving at the Home Industries School for Women in Oslo.
Gerd traveled widely in Europe, coming to Dartington Hall in England, on a recommendation from her school in Oslo. By January 1933 she was designing for the Welsh woollen mills and, through the Rural Industries Bureau, launched Holywell Mill’s double cloths. These cloths would become some of the very first double-weave furnishing fabrics to be used by Gordon Russell.
In 1937 Gerd returned to Norway to design for Nydalen, the largest textile mill in Norway. Gerd’s talent went on to secure her the title of Advisor to the Norwegian Home Industries. Her impact was instrumental in starting Roros Tweed and the Norwegian Tapestry Yarn Company: quite incredible for a young woman of 27. This was to be an early indication of Gerd's outstanding practical talent and leadership in the field of design.
Her marriage to an Englishman took place one year before the war. Together, the young couple travelled to the Far East through Shanghai, Calcutta and Hong Kong. This inspirational period in Gerd’s life would leave a deep mark on her future work. In China, Gerd had learnt to weave on local looms with hand-twisted yarns and had carried out extensive research on Chinese design.
In Calcutta she was tasked with the design and production of 22 hand-woven rugs commissioned by the Palace of the Maharajah of Gwalior. These wonderful experiences and influences would remain with Gerd throughout her career.
It was an accident of war that brought Gerd to settle in Ireland in 1947. By 1949 Gerd had established what would one day become her beloved Mourne Textiles, the design workshop at Killowen on the side of the Mourne Mountains overlooking Carlingford Lough. Inspiration, for Gerd, lay in every direction.
Gerd‘s initial intention had been to set up a Textile Design Studio designing fabrics, which were to be woven elsewhere by machine. As it turned out, she was unable to source the appropriate production and so ended up training some of the local farmers' children to hand-weave her designs.
Gerd soon found herself immersed in the hand-weaving workshop, importing looms and textile machinery from Norway. One loom was crafted by the local coffin maker to her specifications; she called this the Chinese Loom as its design was influenced by the looms she had used while travelling in the Far East.
Gerd's long-standing and successful relationship with Robin Day is recorded in a letter he sent her: "Of all the rugs which I have seen, only yours have got the character enough as a background for my new designs of furniture to be exhibited at ‘La Triennale de Milano 1951’. Please can you weave for this Exhibition a rug of the approximate size: nine feet by seven feet..."
Together Gerd and Robin Day discussed the rugs, not only for Milan but for the forthcoming Festival of Britain. Robin explained to Gerd that he was designing his furniture with exclusive rights to S Hille & Co, a furniture manufacturer located in Watford.
The three black and grey rugs exhibited at La Triennale de Milano as a background for Robin Day's furniture proved to be a huge success, with both Robin and Gerd winning a Silver Medal. Following this wonderful achievement, Leslie Julius of S Hille & Co contacted Gerd asking to represent her, and to discuss showing her rugs with their furniture in the new Hille showroom, soon to be opened in Albemarle Street, Mayfair.
On a trip to London, Gerd presented Robin Day with two samples of new upholstery fabrics that she had developed: The Mourne Check and The Mourne Mist. Day put the samples in a drawer where they remained for several months but eventually came to light. Leslie Julius and Robin Day together contacted Gerd and told her that the two designs were going to be used throughout Day's furniture for Hille. Gerd was informed that she would be kept so busy producing these fabrics for them that she would not have time to design anything else!
Gerd produced the Mourne Check and Mourne Mist for Hille's Robin Day furniture for the next ten years. Day's most iconic pieces were adorned with Gerd's impeccable fabrics.
The Conran connection started in January 1954 when Terence Conran contacted Gerd to supply him with fabrics. On a visit to London, Gerd visited the Conran offices, then a basement in Piccadilly Arcade. Gerd left, promising to design a unique Conran fabric. The fabric design for Conran became known as The Blazer Design.
From 1953-1963 Mourne Textile's production had been predominently furnishing upholstery fabrics and rugs but, during 1963-73, it increasingly became the weaving of apparel tweeds.
In 1956 Sybil Connolly, the renowned fashion designer from Dublin, came to see Gerd to discuss the weaving of tweeds for her next show. Gerd wanted to develop ‘Irish tweeds with a difference’, knowing that if she could produce the right tweed Sybil Connolly would create an outstanding garment. For Sybil Connolly's January 1956 collection Gerd designed and produced three different weights of tweeds: The Irish Basic, The Emphasize and The Open Weave (later known as the Mended Tweed).
At the fashion show to launch the collection, the unique ‘open weave’ of rough, heavy spun and thin smooth white Irish yarns hit the headlines of several papers.
Anne Scott-James described this open weave in her article for a London paper thus: "Well, here comes the show with a girl in a suit in a completely new tweed. The threads are enormous, the weave as clumsy as bad darning, but the fabric that looks so primitive is cunningly subtle and soft".
For Sybil Connolly's winter collection, shown in July, the tweeds were developed further, this time in deep earthy shades highlighted with lurex gold threads. The most publicity for any of Gerd's tweeds was given to the Shaggy Dog Fabric. Miss Connolly herself said: "I can honestly say that I never believed that such an exciting effect could be achieved in a hand-loomed fabric!" The Daily Mail reported, "The pick of the show was undoubtedly the Shaggy Dog hand-woven tweed".
Ernestine Carter, a very well-known fashion reporter for the Sunday Times in London, had written about 'Fashion in Eire’, particularly about Sybil Connolly and her use of Irish lace and pleated linen. "For her tweeds, Miss Connolly works direct with hand-weavers. This year she presents the Shaggy Dog, a rough weave from which certain stitches are pulled out by hand to give a shaggy surface."
Ernestine Carter asked Gerd how, in such an isolated rural place, she was able to produce such high-fashion fabrics as she had just seen in Sybil Connolly's show."I follow fashion in newspapers and magazines. Then I let it flow until you realise that out of the present designs there follows the next development. For me, out of the past flows the future."
Sheila Mullally was a widely known dress designer from Dublin who in 1961 had come to visit Gerd in the Mournes. Struck by the inspirational landscape, she worked with Gerd to develop a tweed that would be named The Fuchsia Tweed. This soon became a bestseller and the two women began a partnership that would endure for ten years.
In 1964, Sheila Mullally opened her own couture establishment in Ballsbridge, Dublin. She had built a strong American market that had fallen hard for the beautiful tweed fabrics designed by Gerd.
The relationship with Liberty began in December 1966. Gerd walked into the store without an appointment and managed to corner Mr Goldstone, the then buyer for the textile department. With great gusto Gerd presented her collection of samples, including Lace Tweeds and Trio Tweeds. Mr. Goldstone was suitably impressed, particularly with Gerd's colour choices. Liberty went on to become a loyal customer of Mourne Textiles ordering dark, rich colours for winter and bright spring colours for summer for many years.
Gerd also designed and developed couture tweeds, using Irish yarns, in jewel bright colours, for the House of Lachasse as well as Hardy Amies in London.