31 Chapel Lane offers natural materials that endure, spun for the strong and the shy.
The quiet multidisciplinary design house is founded by Cavan native Damien and Australian Joi Hannigan. Damien is from Cootehill, Co.Cavan, known for its locally produced textiles, linen in particular, which was historically encouraged by officials over wool to avoid competition with English industry.
31 Chapel Lane create quietly and with purpose, collaborating with creative director Patricia Monllor – the mind behind Maggieontherocks – for their recent summer campaign. Here they tell us about garment manufacture, cottage industry and the isle’s famed bogginess.
On materiality and the environment…
“Irish linen is an iconic and traditional textile, spun into yarn and woven into cloth, from the fibre of the flax plant, which was grown historically throughout Ireland over the centuries, due to the damp bogginess of over half the country, favouring its cultivation.
As well as this, the processing of the flax fibre, the spinning of the yarn and the weaving of the linen cloth is complemented by the humid environment Ireland experiences – this is a polite way, in other words, of saying WET – as the colder northern airs above Ireland react with the warm, moisture laden air brought in by the Gulf Stream from the equator, creating copious amounts of mist and rain, watering the Isle until it is, indeed, emerald with vegetation. The Irish water is also significant in the washing of the yarn and during the dyeing process, as the softness of the water seems to magically enhance the quality of the linen.
One such moist Irish linen producing area has been Cootehill, especially in the 18th Century and later parts of the 19th Century, when the quality of Irish linen was recognised all over the world, and the cloth of choice up until the early 20th Century. Irish linen meets all green credentials as it is truly natural; sustainably grown and processed, preferable, at the very least, in today’s more environmentally conscientious climate.
Irish linen is known the world over for its unparalleled quality. A characteristic earned and developed over centuries and one born from a culmination of factors. Geographically speaking the wet, humid climate in Ireland, and more specifically Northern Ireland, is naturally conducive to the growth of flax. Add to this the fact that when the industrial production of linen began here in earnest in the 17th Century, the most knowledgeable and skilled of specialists were sought and brought from Belgium to advise on the mechanics of the industry and a means of improving efficiency perfected.”
On the rise and fall of linen production…
“Equally the relatively low wages being paid to Irish workers kept costs down and demand high. This ensured that Ireland became the dominant force in linen production worldwide and by virtue of the sheer quantities being we produced we became the best at producing.
In short, practice made perfect. Although the industry has been in decline for the last century those skills and techniques accrued and perfected over hundreds of years remain at the heart of our linen production today.
The first definite mention of linen production as a trade appeared in the 13th Century, apparently flourishing under the watchful eye of the Irish abbeys and the philanthropic monks of the day.
By the 16th century linen was abundant and ubiquitous as a form of clothing. Shirts containing thirteen or fourteen yards of the fabric would have been common for example. But despite its apparent prevalence the linen trade in Ireland was still no more than a ‘cottage’ industry with many families producing small quantities to supplement their primary agricultural income.
The first steps toward the production of linen on an industrial scale probably started in the 17th century. In a contradiction of sorts it was prompted by the successes of the Irish wool weavers at the time. The British woollen industry was under intense pressure from its Irish counterparts and introduced a series of measures to obstruct this growing competition.
Anti-competitive taxes and duties on were placed on Irish woollen exports while the growth of flax was aggressively promoted throughout the northern counties. Flax seed was regularly sold at cost price to Irish tenant farmers for example. Specialists from Belgium were enlisted to advise on and implement standardised linen manufacturing systems throughout the existing network of weavers. These systems placed considerable emphasis on quality control and consistency in the linen production.
The new Irish textile industry grew to become the sole economic trade in many parts of the country and by the 18th century every town and village in Northern Ireland had a mill or factory for the production of Irish linen.”
“In the 19th century power-driven manufacturing machinery began to appear and very rapidly became a requirement for any serious mill. Industrialisation, as we know the term today, occurred and the centuries old cottage industry was wiped out. The scale of manufacture was altered completely and a continuous striving for improvements to efficiency established Irish linen as the best in the world.
This period was influential beyond the confines of the textile industry. It formed our towns and landscapes as street and areas adopted names associated with the linen or its production. One such example is at my family’s farm outside Cootehill, Co. Cavan. Hannigans have worked this land for over a century and for at least three generations it’s been principally a dairy farm. Yet even today we refer to one particular paddock as the “Flax –hole field”. A term which meant little to us prior to 31 Chapel Lane.
It’s also worth noting the huge growth of the linen trade was offset by the decline of our other textile industries. In the late 19th century, for example, the American Civil War diminished their export of cotton and this practically destroyed the Irish cotton industry, which relied on the USA for its raw material.
Linen was used extensively during World Wars I & II in the manufacture of RAF and Royal Navy supplies. Subsequently the supply of linen to civilians decreased and with that it attained a marque of exclusivity. Irish linen was suddenly unattainable to an entire generation; its beauty and quality were no longer the daily standards. We personally feel that this altered perception was never remedied and unfortunately by the end of the 20th century, the industry had shrunk to just a handful of mills.”
On the look and feel of 31 Chapel Lane…
“We don’t enjoy over doing things, and this approach expands to what we make at 31 Chapel Lane. If a garment doesn’t need an extra button, then I’d say let’s not add one. If it doesn’t need a pocket, then no pocket and that’s that.
We are low key, private, insulated and attentive people, we don’t like drawing attention to ourselves, but we do take the time to be considerate and think of others. So I think the shyness, quietness of who we are, with the attentiveness towards others do translate into what we make. What we encourage customers to focus on isn’t Damien and Joi, but our garments, the inner workings of them.
I’d like to think that the essence of what we make is of substance. Our garments don’t ‘scream’ for attention, they are quite plain at first glance, we don’t print on our fabrics, and embellishment is not our strength either. So it is until customers actually have a feel, give a hold of our garments, observe them, think about them, turn them inside out, they probably don’t understand why they are special, and why they are the way they are.”
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