Between the Mountains of Mourne and the waters of Carlingford Lough, three generations of weavers have used handlooms to make exquisite fabrics beloved by British designers, says Mark Hooper
In the lee of the Mourne Moutains, County Down, Mourne Textiles creates exquisite fabrics admired by designers.
Driving down the Warrenpoint Road as it hugs the Newry River in County Down, the stunning, mist-wrapped Mourne Mountains rise to our left and the sun glints off Carlingford Lough ahead.
Mario Sierra, who is behind the wheel, turns into a hedgerow-lined driveway and pulls up outside a plain, brick fronted building. Eagerly, he takes a bag from the boot to show one of the staff: wool from Frida, a local farmer.
This is the design workshop of Mourne Textiles, the same building established by Mario's grandmother, Gerd Hay-Edie, when she settled here from her native Norway after the Second World War. Under her maiden name of Bergersen, Gerd was an established weaver and textiles designer when she moved to County Down.
She had lived in England in the early 1930s and moved there before the war, working as head designer at Darlington Hall Trust in Devon. There, Gerd was involved in the generation of the Welsh woollen mills through the Trust's charity arm, which specialises in the arts, social justice and sustainability.
In 1937, she returned to Norway, becoming the youngest-ever director of Rural Industries in Norway (a government body overseeing the promotion of Norwegian craft) at the age of just 27. In 1938, Gerd married Englishman Archie Hay-Edie, after which the couple trailed through Shanghai, Calcutta and Hong Kong. There she took the opportunity to weave on local looms with hand twisted yarns and research Chinese designs, which informed her later work.
It was more accident than design that Gerd came to settle in Mourne, according to Mario. In 1947, she chanced upon the beautiful setting of Carlingford Lough – Mario wonders whether it reminded her of the fjords of her native Norway – and made it her permanent home. Gerd purpose-built her modern version of a cottage industry from scratch. Unable to source the appropriate manpower or equipment, she trained some of the farmers’ children to hand-weave her designs in her own workshop, importing looms and textile machinery from Norway – and even having one loom made to her own specifications by the local coffin maker.
Gerd’s hard work soon found success. She developed a longstanding working relationship with Robin Day, one of Britain’s most brilliant and influential product designers, producing upholstery fabric for some of his most iconic pieces. Their collaboration began when he wrote to her, saying: “Of all the rugs I have seen, only yours have character enough as a background for my new designs of furniture to be exhibited at La Triennale de Milano 1951.”
The three black-and-grey rugs she exhibited with him resulted in a silver medal for both designers and led to a high-profile collaboration with 1951 Festival of Britain furniture manufacturer S Hille & Co. She went on to work with the celebrated interior designer and retailer Terence Conran, as well as with London department store Liberty and fashion designers Sybil Connolly and Hardy Amies – the Queen’s favourite.
Gerd’s daughter Karen – Mario’s mother – helped in the workshop from an early age, but recession, exacerbated by the Troubles in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, made it impossible to sustain the business. By the mid-1980s, it was forced to close. With Gerd’s passing in 1997, the story seemed to be over, but Karen was determined to revive the company.
“My mother had been trying to get things restarted from about 2000,” Mario says. “But of course, that was pre-internet. She did some work with [London furniture company] SCP – she walked in off the street and the owner, Sheridan Coakley, said, ‘If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?’ – she was 60 at the time – and then added, ‘Why are you doing this?’”
But Mario and his mother refused to give up on their legacy. “It’s the responsibility of feeling it can’t die on our watch: it has to carry on,” he says. “My one root is here: it’s my anchor on the earth. For the local farmers next door to know that wool from their sheep is being used here is so important. I was talking to a neighbour and he remembers when Princess Margaret came to visit the workshop in the 1960s and he was a primary school kid – this is part of their upbringing, too. Even the electricians went to the primary school next door and learned to weave from my grandmother.”
The lure of the looms inspired Mario to quit a promising career as a sound engineer for TV and film in London.
In 2013, he relaunched the family business, carving a new, modern identity for the brand, collaborating on homeware ranges with pioneering design-focused companies, such as Margaret Howell and Pinch.
HOMELY COTTAGE INDUSTRY
The back half of the Mourne Textiles building is a cosy family home, complete with the smell of woodsmoke from an open log fire; Mario lives there with his partner and teenage children. The front half, meanwhile, is filled with clattering vintage looms and spooling machines. There is a relaxed, convivial atmosphere – the few staff smiling and chatting as they settle into the easy rhythm of their work.
Mario leads us out of the kitchen towards the old wooden summer house in the garden. This now homes his archive of Gerd’s handwritten pattern books. These archive designs provide an important connection with the relaunched company’s roots, he says. Sure enough, his grandmother’s
“There is a convivial atmosphere – the staff smiling and chatting”
influence still looms large in Mourne Textiles’ range of rugs, scarves, blankets, wall hangings and cushions. Even the modern designs take inspiration from Gerd’s pattern books as well as the rich autumnal hues and textures of the heather all around.
“It’s very physical here,” says Mario. “That’s my passion: the physical side of weaving. Keeping it current, using the old looms to produce something that feels like it shouldn’t have even come off them. I love it when people are really surprised and say, ‘Wow, I would have thought that was made on something else.’”
The future looks bright. A new joint venture with Ulster Carpets has allowed them to expand their range into larger orders of furnishing and curtain fabrics, cushions and blankets for the commercial interior-design market. For Mario personally, this also means getting his hands on more vintage hand-operated looms. But above all, it means building the company without stinting on quality.
Mario is committed to Mourne Textiles remaining part of the fabric of the local community in every sense. “We were here before: we’re here now.” The nature of a modern streamlined weaving industry means not all the wool can be sourced locally, but where possible, it is. Mario says he enjoys talking to “the right people, like Frida, who you learn stuff from. The local craftsmen; there are amazing skills there. And they’re not trendy, they’re just people who know what they’re doing – and who do it well.