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Mourne Textiles set for showcase at Paris Design Week

Hand-woven textiles from Co Down are making their way to Paris Design Week courtesy of the family-run Mourne Textiles. Gail Bell spoke to master weaver Karen Hay-Edie about continuing her mother's legacy

Mourne Textiles master weaver Karen Hay-Edie and her son Mario. Picture by Tara Fisher
Gail Bell

MASTER weaver Karen Hay-Edie (70) is at her happiest when surrounded by green fields, cows and sheep, so it is with some reluctance and "a little trepidation" that she is packing up her beloved hand loom and heading to Paris Design Week this weekend.

The visit has been prompted by a collaboration with influential London designer, Margaret Howell – a long-time champion of Mourne Textiles in Rostrevor, originally set up as a small attic enterprise by Karen's late mother, Gerd, in 1954.

At Howell's flagship store at La Place de la Madeleine, Karen will be giving live weaving demonstrations, exhibiting natural fleece wall hangings (courtesy of local sheep) and launching a new range of scarves handwoven on a vintage loom from yarn mixes of merino, cashmere and silk.

"I love sitting down at the loom and weaving; I find it so relaxing," Karen says.

"I definitely like it better than all the rushing around. I'm not that keen on big cities, really, so I will be glad to get back to the fields, the cows – and especially the sheep which have given me the most gorgeous fleeces for the wall hangings we are bringing to Paris.

"They are all designed with natural, undyed fleece, twisted by hand and featuring a mixture of textures. They come from rare breeds near our Rostrevor workshop and I can look out the window and spot a particularly nice one in the fields every so often.

"There has been a strong association with Margaret Howell who exhibited my mother's designs in a retrospective of her work in London a few years ago and, for this current event, she looked through our archives, which illustrate my mother's remarkable talent and influence on mid-century modern design."

After she came to Ireland, Gerd – born Gerd Bergersen in Trondheim, Norway in 1909 – started weaving in an attic in 1947 and continued until the roof fell in and forced a move to the garage, according to her daughter who inherited both her mother's passion and talent for weaving and design.

Later, when installed in her new purpose-built workshop, Gerd's textiles were noticed and sought out by people of note in the rarefied 'designasphere' of London and Dublin at the time, including Terence Conran, Robin Day, luxury menswear label Hardy Amies and couturier Sybil Connolly.

Karen recalls her mother's first 'big break' came in 1951 when asked to make three black and grey rugs exhibited at La Triennale de Milano as a background to Robin Day's furniture.

They earned the pair a silver medal at the show and two fabrics, Mourne Check and Mourne Mist, went on to adorn Day's furniture for the next decade.

The more recent connection with Margaret Howell came about when, attracted to the "richness and depth of texture" in the locally hand-woven fabrics, the designer placed an order for cushion covers six years ago.

"That marked the re-launch of the business in 2012 and my son, Mario, came on board as creative director," Karen says.

"But, even when things almost nearly stopped in a difficult period during the 1980s, I was still weaving – making floor rugs and wall hangings. I don't think I ever really stopped."

And, with Karen's earliest memories being of her mother bent over a loom, it was almost inevitable she would take up the shuttle and push it to her own rhythm.

"I started weaving on a little loom when I was aged three and my earliest memories are of my mother working at the loom, weaving her designs," she says.

"I suppose I was never really going to do anything else. Mario learned to weave when he was four and his daughters have already made their own rugs, so we are keeping a family tradition alive and at the same time, traditional weaving techniques on custom-made hand looms."

The workshop still sources yarns from Donegal, as it did in the past, and custom dyes them to match heritage pieces created by Gerd who began making tapestries aged 17 and first studied design and hand-weaving at the Home Industries School for Women in Oslo.

"These yarns are intrinsic to the Irish-Scandinavian roots of the company," Karen adds.

"My mother used traditional weaving techniques on custom-made hand looms and her broad understanding of her materials and tools allowed her to produce designs full of character with vibrant tones and stunning textures.

"I am happy to be continuing her legacy today and it is great that people still find what we do fascinating – I hope the visitors who come to see me weave in Paris will feel the same."

:: Mourne Textiles workshop is based at Old Killowen Road, Rostrevor and online at Mournetextiles.com

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