At the foot of Northern Ireland’s Mourne Mountains is a weaving company spanning three generations of a family whose roots reach all over the world. Mourne Textiles was started by Norwegian designer-maker Gerd Hay-Edie in the 1950’s and ran up until the 80s, winding down in part because of the Troubles in Ireland, which killed off tourism. Three years ago Gerd’s grandson Mario Sierra, together with her daughter (his mother) Karen Hay-Edie – themselves both master weavers – began the job of bringing the company and Gerd’s legacy back to life.
Gerd, born in 1909, studied weaving in Oslo before moving to Spain at 20 to set up a weaving workshop. A move to England followed, with a stint as head designer at Dartington Hall, before marriage to an Englishman, another move to Asia – and more weaving there – and finally, settling in the Mournes with her four children. Intending to set up a design workshop, Gerd couldn’t find local makers so instead started the mill to train weavers herself. Her groundbreaking textiles attracted attention from Robin Day, Hille, Terence Conran, Liberty and Irish couturier Sybil Connolly and Gerd, who was a canny marketer, often travelled to London and around the world to secure orders.
We met Mario in his London studio, where he spends part of his time, to hear about how he and Karen have wrestled through an enormous archive of works to bring his grandmother’s iconic designs back into the market.
How much impact did the workshop have on your life when you were a child?
“I grew up with my mum and my grandmother after my parents split up when I was six or seven (before my Mum remarried). They were really strong women. The first year we didn’t have a house so I lived in the workshop and had my bed next to one of the looms, which was slightly creepy. I wove as a child and have grown up with the workshop. I knew all the weavers, including Jock who’s still there.”
What are your memories of your grandmother and her creativity?
“My grandmother was very inspiring and very, very clever. She was bohemian but not hippy, aware and very worldy – I did my school projects on her. I got into art early and studied Fine Art and Textiles. I had itchy feet around 18, 19, 20 and wanted to travel like my grandmother. But I always knew that I wanted to get the workshop back.”
How about your mum?
“My mum was always weaving as well – when she had a family she was looking after them and doing commissions. When the workshop shut down we kept the looms and the yarn. We were very fortunate that we didn’t need to get rid of anything. Mum ran courses in the early 2000’s from the workshop and did the odd commission for rugs, so she kept the looms going, she fixed all the windows and brought the workshop back to life structurally. We didn’t have any full time weavers then, Jock did a bit of part time. In the hey day my grandmother probably had four or five local farmer’s daughters who she trained.
What brought you back to Mourne to build the business again?
“When my mother said that she felt she’d dismantle the looms and let the workshop go I said no! And that’s when I came back and got massively involved. Margaret Howell happened to put in a order around that time too. I was a sound recordist in tv documentaries for years and then did some photoshop colour-correcting work, but gradually that just had to stop, I couldn’t do anything else but this.”
How do you work together?
“We talk about the designs together and really work well together. Mum’s the master weaver who trains the weavers and keeps an eye on the quality of the weaves – I do that too, we have to make the best quality cloth we can make. We’re both obviously very passionate about the workshop and I think that’s really important. My kids are very keen too, but I can’t force it. They’re only 13 and 10, but they have woven, they’re very aware of the workshop so we’ll see.”
Tell us how you pulled together the first collection of cushions, blankets, tableware and upholstery fabrics?
“We have the archives with the swatches and we’ve got boxes full of samples. What we have started with is quite select – some tweeds, some checks and some rugs from the archives and that’s our starting point. Where we continue from here is gauging from demand. We’re expanding our furnishing fabric range and have got some new tweeds to turn into curtain fabrics. We consciously started with monochrome. Partly to get the structure right of the tweeds and also before we start the expensive process of dying. It’s not just about the yarn, it’s also about the way it’s woven and the way the loom behaves. My grandmother didn’t leave an instruction manual, she left samples – lots of her shorthand lying around.”
Will colour be something you move towards?
“My grandmother was a colourist and that’s where I want to get to, there’s so many incredible colours and textures in her work. Within each coloured fabric there’s three, four different yarns going on. That’s four different yarns that I’d have to colour in order to get this one cloth. But we will definitely be bringing a lot of colour into the workshop. I love the colours but I also adore the texture of the fabrics – the tiny flecks in the cotton, they’re very, very complex cloths. They might be the simplest weave you can do but they are so complex becuase of the combination of the yarns and the way they sit next to each other. ”
Do you think the landscape of the Mourne mountains influenced Gerd?
“The landscape affected colour hugely. It’s a bit like the Highlands, the geology is similar. We’re on the edge of the mountain, you look out of the window and the mountain is there and it changes colour all year. You have different purples and fuschia in the gorse – that’s the flecks in the textured cloths. And she’d use it in a lot of the names, like bracken. It’s all dotted through the archives, you can see where she’s named things after the landscape. She did travel around and she loved Donegal too.
Are you influenced by trends?
“I’m not influenced. I felt we should start with the workshop. I found this quote in a newspaper article that she’d she’d said to a journalist in the 50s ‘Out of the past into the future,’ and I thought that’s amazing, that’s her approach to designing.”
Find the current collection of Mourne Textiles here.