A very long time ago, when I was eighteen, someone said to me that I had an erotic relationship to textiles. Having fallen in love with weaving I had just got my first handloom: the endless possibilities of combining different yarns, patterns and colours and the challenge of getting my calculations right. When the warp is made and the loom is set up there is the rhythmic and nearly meditative labour of handweaving and finally the joy of cutting out a finished piece of fabric. A few years later I also fell in love with Ireland in general and a handsome Dubliner in particular. Being young, romantic and very naïve we started our own business handweaving in our sitting room and bedroom and making the warps in the hallway of our apartment. 3 children completed the chaos.
This year our business is 30 years old. During this time we went through our own industrial revolution as we now use the machines that superseded handlooms. A few years ago we also ventured into knitting which gives us endless design possibilities. After all this time I am still excited to get new shade cards from the spinners, to match colours and think up ways of combining everything to design a new scarf. Creating something that people love and that helps them to express their individuality is a great joy to me.
I met my lovely German wife Anke in a pub in Dublin a week before she started work in a weaving factory in Donegal. It was love at first sight for both of us. I offered to drive her to Donegal, but ended up staying there and the rest is history.
When we first started our own business we were just handweaving, which is a very slow process. It was hard to make a living and support a family. Ultimately, when I came across a Hattersley loom I knew that it was the direction we needed to take. This is what I love about being self-employed; something can always be improved. There is always a challenge and something new to think about, learn, design or build.
We still use a vertical handwarping mill to make warps because it gives us more possibilities in design. The gradual change of colour in our Cosmo scarves could not be achieved on a modern warping machine. It takes me about 4 hours to make a warp for 50 Cosmo scarves. Then all 720 threads of the new warp have to be knotted to the old warp, which takes another 2 hours. Only then can we start weaving. Our scarves are made one at a time. The warp is the width of the scarf and the shuttle goes back and forth and creates a proper woven selvedge, just like a hand loom would. Nowadays most woven scarves are made on much wider looms, 6 or 7 beside each other with a gap in between them and then just cut into strips. Those scarves don’t have a selvage but little bits sticking out on both sides.
Our latest acquisition comes in the shape of two computerised Stoll knitting machines. The actual process of knitting is slower than weaving but it does not involve having to make warps or knotting on hundreds of threads. All it needs is the programme to be loaded and away it runs all by itself. We are still learning how to use it and feel a great sense of achievement every time we have uncovered yet another one of its mysteries. And when we get up in the morning and it has knitted 20 scarves while we were sleeping we congratulate each other on our great investment.
I originally started working at McKernans as an intern and jumped at the opportunity when I was offered a job afterwards.
When I come into work in the morning, the first thing I do is open the shop and put the sign outside the front of the building. Then I get a cup of coffee and go to the weaving workshop.
I mainly do weaving here although I didn’t know very much about it before my internship, and while I was learning to weave I got interested in the history of the machines. The looms that we use were invented in the 1860s by George Hattersley, in a town called Keighley in West Yorkshire only 25 miles from my hometown in Leeds. They were originally made to weave skirt lengths and can weave up to 90cm in width. We can also change the design, or use any colour or material, so we have lots of variety and can make beautiful scarves on these amazing machines.
Weaving is a very physical job, and I love using my hands to work.
Sometimes the looms aren’t working perfectly, I think they all have personalities and get mood-swings, during which they decide to throw the shuttle out or a leather strap will break. While this is annoying and I hate when it happens, I don’t mind the challenge and I love it when I fix the issue and the looms runs smoothly again.
I especially love summertime here because that’s when we get to meet the most people from all over the world. I really like taking them on tours of the building and showing them the weaving workshop and I always tell them that the looms come from Yorkshire, just like me.
I have been working for McKernans for the last 8 years. Originally from Zakopane in Southern Poland I had a lot of friends who had moved to Ireland after Poland joined the European Union in May 2004. Ireland was one of just three existing EU countries to open its borders to the new member states. It was the time of the “Celtic Tiger”, the economic boom which turned out to be a bubble just a year after I arrived. But until 2008 it was easy to find a job and Ireland became a popular destination for Poles wishing to work outside the country, so much so, that Poles are now the largest minority and Polish shops can be found everywhere.
The McKernans were desperately looking for a seamstress at the time, and we were a good match because I had just finished my apprenticeship. I never thought that I would find qualified work so quickly because my English was not very good. That changed quickly and now I am overseeing all the finishing in the workshop and I pack most of the orders. We have been getting busier every year since I started working here. At first I was the only employee and now there are 7 of us including Eugene and Anke. August and September are really stressful here because hundreds of parcels have to go out to shops all over the world. Somehow there is always something missing in one of them we so end up falling over boxes everywhere.
When I came to Ireland I never expected to still be here after 8 years, but I really enjoy my life here, my friends and my work. At the moment I can’t see myself returning to Poland.
I studied Costume Design for Film and Theatre. It is difficult enough to find a job in that area anyway and it is absolutely impossible in East Clare. I have a small child and want to live close to my family to have a support network. I had always done hand knitting and weaving as a hobby so when I found the job with McKernans I was delighted.
What I like most about working here are all the different fabrics. I love the textures, the smell of wool, and all the vibrant colours cheer me up every time I walk into the workshop. I also adore the luxurious feeling of the different yarns which range from merino wool to silk, alpaca, linen and cashmere.
Before I started working here I had hardly any experience with computers or bookkeeping and did not think that I had a talent for it. Now it gives me a real sense of achievement every time I learn something new in this area. One of my jobs is to enter the orders into the computer. Some are written at trade fairs, others come in from our agents, or the shops send emails or phone us. A lot of the orders are for a variety of styles and colours but some mail order companies buy hundreds of pieces of one type. Some shops want them straight away but a lot of the orders are for much later in the season. The computer system lets us sort all of these orders by scarf style or delivery date so we know what we have to get ready, for when, and how much yarn has to be ordered, to produce everything in time.
Since a lot of our orders come from our German agents it helps that I am fluent in German and I really enjoy being able to use my second language.
I studied Textile Design in Galway because I deeply love textiles. I am fascinated by the touch of soft materials, I delight in the nuanced play of colours and never even seem to tire of the smell of wool and silk.
I always had a weakness for scarves and personally feel rather naked without one, even in the “heat” of an Irish summer. The beautiful thing about this accessory is the infinite number of patterns, designs, materials and styles that it comes in. Wearing a scarf that repeats or enhances the skin, eye or hair colour can be very flattering and adding a scarf or shawl to an outfit has the potential to create a huge difference to any look or mood.
And since I always aspired to work and create with my own hands and wanted to know where and how things are made, I have now switched sides – from customer to maker.
That’s why I’m happy to work with the McKernans.
Here I do anything from quality control, finishing of scarves, organising yarns and storage, to advising people in the mill shop. It makes my work just that bit more personal when I meet and advise the person who will wear a scarf that we have made.
Right now I am learning how to operate the knitting machines. I am most content when a variety of different responsibilities fill my days, so I am excited to see where my new skills will take me in the future.
I think the love for Arts and Crafts runs in my blood and was encouraged by my Primary School, which is based on Rudolf Steiner and is artistically orientated. In secondary school I was even asked to do two murals on the classroom walls. I ended up studying Art and Design and when I found out that a lot of my family, on both sides throughout the generations, were and are seamstresses I thought I could keep that going. This led me to learn sewing. I was overjoyed when I got the job here. I had been looking for so long and nearly given up hope to find work in something I’m interested in.
My job is to finish the scarves after they are woven or knitted. When the woven scarves come off the loom they are in a big roll and have to be cut. The fringes then have to be hand knotted or sewn and mistakes or broken threads have to be mended. Knitted scarves are different. When they come out of the knitting machine they are all attached to each other and I have to separate them and sew in the ends.
All the scarves have to be washed; some are dried on the line and some go in the drier. People are always surprised that we put wool into the drier. The reason is that the scarves get much softer and fluffier from this process. But left too long they would shrink. At last the scarves are labelled and then ironed. We have two huge ironing boards which were specially made for us and we use them for the knitted scarves. Most of the woven scarves are pressed with a steam roller ironing machine.
There is never a dull moment here between getting all the orders done in time, serving tourists in our little shop and having chats with the other girls in between.