As part of Indie June, I thought I could introduce you all to another Irish Knitwear Designer, Edel MacBride. I find Edel’s work inspiring and her life in design is very different to my own. I came to knitwear design from engineering and very quickly rolled into teaching also. Edel, however, began in fashion design and pattern pdfs and teaching are more recent additions to her work life. I actually came across Edel thanks to Irish Tourism as she runs workshops and retreats for the north of Ireland as I do for the south of Ireland. I love hearing about other designers backgrounds and experiences so I asked Edel if she would like to be interviewed for the Stolen Stitches blog. She kindly agreed and the interview that follows gives you a snapshot of her life in Knitwear:
“Crochet dress in Irish linen by Edel MacBride with merino wool knit wrap. Image Darren Kidd Photography.”
Edel, can you tell me a little bit about your background?
I grew up in Donegal and love living here. I lived in Derry city for a good few years and see it as home in another way too. While just 30 minutes apart both places have a unique pulse and I fit in with both…I think!
As the eldest of 6, being ‘a bossy boots’ comes naturally. That said I was very shy as a child! My parents wanted us to have opportunities that they didn’t so I tried my best for years at the violin and piano lessons. No one noticed it unusual that I was knitting myself circular skirt suits at age 9, or aran cardigans for my siblings. All those piano scales paid off in dexterity.I never dreamt for a minute of having a career that was clothing related. Whilst I loved everything about my grandmother’s busy dressmaking business, at a young age I thought the doorbell ringing was a lot of pressure! Loving Art, English Lit and History all passionately, Art won out.
Discovering the fashion course was a revelation, I was a late interview in Limerick and when they told me about the course I was 100% certain it was designed for me. The day of the interview I wore a 2 piece early 80’s style suit with lace trim which I’d cut out on the bedroom floor. I often crave that ‘ devil me care’ approach now!
You originally trained in fashion design; starting out what area of fashion did you work in?
The 3 years in Limerick were based on a weekly collection presentation and assessment. No sleep any Tuesday night. The technical and pattern drafting sides were full on and I loved both. Yet it was when Fran Ryan was introduced to us for a 10-week knitting class on a single bed machine that life changed.
I only remember the first class. Fran told all 11 of us to make a jumper for the following week. I bought a subtle biscuit coloured rayon type 4 ply on the cone and put in some week fighting with it. Everyone else seemed to have knitting flying though the machine, but not me! Still the amount I learned through that first week of battles paid off!
I took home piece-work knitting for Frans shop too and continued doing that through college. In the second year I knit almost all the collection of a 3rd-year student and got commissions from the lecturers too. A handknit coat in Kilcarra dark seaweed green, knit to wear over a Magee tweed suit caught the eye of external examiner Paul Costelloe. He literally asked me to work for him and gave me a bunch of phone numbers. I couldn’t say to anyone as he failed two people that day, 2 of my closest friends. So we all hated him.
A year later I did start making samples for him, first in menswear and later ladies wear. I worked freelance for about 6 years in total on his collections. After some newspaper publicity about a Kilkenny Design travel award I’d won to Italy to visit Pitti Filati and designers there, I got a call from the then manager of Kilcarra yarns, Tom Wilson.
I brought my portfolio to Kilcar and got a pattern design job offer. Jacinta Breslin was already there as design chief and we worked well together. She was an excellent pattern writer and I had a bit more edge on design. It was great discipline writing everything for 6 sizes and getting to Dublin to help with the shoots. I decided against a five-year contract offer for a number of reasons, besides I was 22 and 5 years sounded like 50 now!
I moved to Derry, kept my link with Costelloe, took on other free lance work and set about my own collections. Around this time I realised a business plan of sorts would help and started the first of many business training programmes. I love the marketing especially. One course led to an internship at Neiman Marcus in Boston and simultaneous study at Boston College. A unique and amazing opportunity but still I was homesick for the hills of Donegal!
“Moss handknit coat in merino by Edel MacBride over crochet and machine knit dress in linen and lurex”
What drew you back to knitting?
Knitting never left me. My final collection had quite a bit of tweed but was predominately knit. One thing I do advise though is pattern cutting as I saw through time how pattern cutting shaped my work, literally. Especially in the area of dresses or eveningwear, understanding pattern construction makes pattern writing so much easier, it’s all in the subtle things that flatter the figure more.
Knitwear was just where I had more magic. Much was lost on youth though…What I mean, is selling to some incredible places with tough buyers like Liberty, Henri Bendel or many more I just didn’t appreciate. On the plus side, I built a team that was really quality and delivery focused and most important everyone loved what they were doing. I do remember Michelina Stacpoole saying to me while I was a student ” we have a tougher job us knitwear designers, we must create our fabric too, not just cut it!!!!’ I think it was nice how she put it, she defined me in her space and she was a very successful name and talented lady.
What do you like most about working for yourself?
There are those days ‘the ones where you wonder “What if you had just let the balls drop?” When the going was really tough, so many times. Yet there always seemed to be a measure of providence that kicked in and said to keep going. An unexpected customer or order. Once, when my children were very small, I had just about met the pre-Christmas wage bill and didn’t know where Christmas dinner was coming from, when a small stout man arrived into my then remote factory space and pointed at an incredible showpiece called ‘The Russian cape’ in a Rowan Chenille and took out a fold of crisp notes! Sometimes I laugh and think Santa Claus saved the day.
When one is creatively strong and driven a business can be a great but dangerous place! Getting the balance between industry and creativity means parking many things at times. The best part is when you have flow and you own it, as cliched as it sounds there’s nothing like it. The new stitch and colour combination that’s working magic, the customer who’s dancing for joy in a new piece.
It’s hard to explain. On a recent drive to Dublin and home on the same day, my daughter said “Mum is there anything in your life except work? You talk of nothing else” and we laughed because she knew already, I don’t see it as work. That said though this passion comes at a price.
Is there anything you miss about previous jobs?
As I’ve largely always been self-employed my business has evolved through different models. I often miss the flow we had as a little factory in Convoy. The in-house team work and cross over of creativity was great. That makes me wonder what it would be like to be a designer in a larger organisation. It can be frustrating the limitations of being a small operator. Still, there is more opportunity than ever, yet again managing that is an art in itself too.
I’d quite like to work with fabric and knit together at some stage. I hate shopping as what I want or have in my head is never there, so I go home to make it…thinking the day has 35 hours. Vintage shopping is fun though.
“Merino pinafore dress linen scarf and crochet mitts by Edel MacBride. Photo Darren Kidd Photography “
Do you have any advice for someone thinking of going the independent route?
It has been very reassuring lately to read stories of talented designers with extensive careers opting to set up their own business. It has given me back a respect that I found missing at times. A lot of my work to re-imagine Aran, for example, was lost on folk who should know better! But I found heart in the language used internationally.
So my advice would be
- Look at your own strengths and successes and not at what others are doing, find your story or signature within and then don’t except praise close to home, it’s a bonus.
- Narrow your focus to succeed and serve well.
- Deliver, deliver, deliver, if there’s a problem on the horizon, go talk to your customer, big or small, folk are human and welcome honesty
- If you’re set on joining a shop, collective shop or platform don’t be put off by ‘No’ the first time. Be quietly persistent, it shows belief in your product, go back but ultimately be sure why you want in?
- Get your money and don’t be afraid to ask. This should be number 1.
- Get an educated overview on your pricing, you may be too close to your business and are aiming too low.
Any future plans you’d like to share with us?
In 2010 I did my first class. I loved it and in 2012 I started the brand ‘Knitfield’ to help define the difference between making beautiful things for sale and helping people create themselves. It made sense of my thinking too in terms of the IP around everything we do. Endless new designs created as one-offs etc over the years.
Knitfield is about a spirit of textiles in Ireland and even a spirit of making in the world. A respect for making and sharing skills. The absolute belief in the spirit of creating. So I hope to spend more time on this. To capture it all a little more. To keep creating and of course to travel more, what designer doesn’t say that?
I will be back teaching at Milwaukee Irish Fest Summer School from August 15th to 17th in both a knitting class and a crochet class. I’m really looking forward to it.
“Edel MacBride in her studio (photo Andrejs Plavins courtesy Irish tourism group) “