Ink black flecks fade into grey, before a short wisp of gold appears. The pattern is nearly repeated again and again until a tiny burst of blue comes through. The subtle design of traditional Irish tweed, made possible only with hand-spun yarn, was created by an oft-overlooked textile designer: Gerd Hay-Edie.
Originally from Norway, Hay-Edie studied weaving design as a teenager in Oslo, and later in England. Shortly after completing her studies, she joined Welsh textile mills, where she worked on innovating a double-weave fabric. After five years in Wales, Hay-Edie returned to her native Norway to transform the local textile industry, designing for the nation’s largest mill and working with the Norwegian government to support new textile businesses and yarn makers. Following her marriage in 1938, she also traveled throughout Asia, learning hand-weaving skills in China and creating rugs for Indian palaces.
In 1949, Hay-Edie set up a workshop in Ireland, where she could design and produce her own textiles. The studio took its name from the graceful slopes of the nearby Mourne Mountains, a series of grass-covered granite cliffs where sheep were often brought to graze. She recruited youth from the surrounding farms who were willing to learn hand-weaving techniques, and could help work the looms she imported from Norway and had adjusted to her own specifications.
The small studio soon gained an enthusiastic following. Hay-Edie began working with the renowned furniture designer Robin Day, who included several of her rugs in his exhibit for the Milan Triennale in 1951. She continued to produce furniture textiles for the following decade, but the unique texture of her twills quickly drew the attention of the fashion industry.
In 1956, Ireland’s famed fashion designer Sybil Connolly traveled to Hay-Edie’s workshop and shoulder-tapped her to create tweeds with a unique “open weave.” The suits Connolly designed were favored by First Lady Jackie Kennedy, among other trendsetters, and by the early 1960s Hay-Edie focused fully on fashion. She continued to work with Connolly, innovating hand woven fabrics in unique textures and vibrant colors that caught the eye of the fashion press. Mourne Textiles also produced fabrics for Irish couture designer Sheila Mullally, British fashion house Liberty of London and Savile Row suit maker Hardy Amies.
“She was a clever lady who loved to talk about art and design,” says Mario Sierra, current director at Mourne Textiles and Hay-Edie’s grandson. “She would focus on color and proportions in a work of art and think about how to achieve that balance within her own fabrics.”
Sierra learned to weave as a child and studied textiles at Winchester College of Art, but spent several years traveling after graduating. “I would come home and there would be the smells of sheep, and the lanolin in the wool, and the oil used for the looms. […] I was just drawn back to being in the workshop. It was in my blood,” he explains. Sierra took the helm of his grandmother’s business in 2012, and has since received funding from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to launch an apprenticeship program that teaches the traditional weaving methods Hay-Edie once used. “I realized there was this wealth of textiles in her archive, and I felt responsible that the designs not get lost,” Sierra says.
Much of Sierra’s work goes to replicating the hand-spun yarns that were so integral to the creation of Mourne Textiles. To do this, Sierra is constantly searching for the original machinery that Hay-Edie used, often tracking down components in weathered barns or museum basements. “Nearly all of the yarns that my grandmother made don’t exist any more,” he explains. “It’s a bit of a labor of love, but I think its worth it. So much of the textile is in that texture, and to get that, you need the right yarn.”
The Mourne workshop now has five full-time weavers: two who have been weaving for a lifetime; three who are apprentices with a few years of experience. “It’s a fantastic crossover of the two generations. There’s this amazing sense of continuity and pride,” says Sierra, adding, “My mom jokes that she’s been weaving for 50 years and is still learning.” Today, Hay-Edie’s creative spirit and curiosity continues to be carefully woven into each Mourne textile.
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