Cottage Industry definition: a small-scale, decentralised manufacturing business; generally operated out of a home (hence: cottage) and often producing labour-intensive products.
These products usually face intense competition from large-scale manufacturers.
The old saying “life begins at 40” is perhaps overused and not always helpful to those of us going through the ageing process (I say this from experience).
But in the case of Bernie Murphy – who at the age of 55 and after just four years in business, has established herself as one of the finest textile artists and designers in the country – you can’t say it isn’t true.
Bernie established her brand, Bernie Murphy in her hometown of Buncrana, Co Donegal, in 2017. Specialising in Irish-made tweed and linen clothing and accessories, everything she makes has an element of her heritage – but with a modern twist.
“I worked in Fruit of the Loom for 21 years as a garment technician and I loved working there,” she says. “I suppose, working there taught me everything I know about garment construction and timelines.”
Back to school
Bernie was made redundant from Fruit of the Loom in 2006. As a single mother to two older children, her daughter was, at that time, studying at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) and her son was doing his Leaving Cert.
“My daughter kept coming back from college with all of these creative embroidery pieces,” Bernie says. “I was interested and thought I might like to be an interior designer, so I went to the local college North West Regional in Derry to study special design.
“Within the first year, I thought, ‘No, this isn’t for me’, but I also did a critical study and my mentor was the head of the fashion and textiles department,” she continues. “I was looking around the room when I was down with her and she said, ‘You’re so distracted.’ I said, ‘I need to be here!’”
Her mentor advised Bernie to finish her course and receive her HNC (Higher National Certificate) rather than waste the year and a half she had already spent on the course. Then, her mentor put her on an HND (Higher National Diploma) course in fashion design and textiles.
“I loved it,” Bernie says. “It was an escape; being creative all the time. Then I went to Belfast and did a top-up degree specialising in textile art. I ended up making these wearable art pieces – using the pieces used in constructing a leisurewear garment in Fruit of the Loom (they gifted me the pieces).”
When Bernie completed her degree, she was selling some of her pieces but she wasn’t making enough from them to sustain herself. She attended a creative programme put on by the Design and Crafts Council and her Local Enterprise Office and, in her words, “an idea just clicked”. She knew she needed to develop her business with respect to her local heritage of wool and linen production.
“I was crocheting, using wool, at the time antd I realised: we have such rich resources here in Donegal,” she recalls. “Ten minutes’ drive and I’m at any mill!”
Bernie grew up with three sisters and a brother – she says her mother and grandmother were always busy making things, and from a young age she was fascinated with design.
“Growing up, Mummy always had knitting on the needles, using Kilcar wool (before they became Donegal Yarns),” she smiles.
“She would have made us wee dresses, but she wouldn’t have sewn the way I do. She kept the sewing machine – her prized possession – in the back wardrobe in her bedroom and when I was about nine, I started taking it out.
“She gave out to me about it at first, and then one day she said, ‘You know what? Just use it because you’re using it more than I am.’ I was making doll’s clothes! So my passion for design was always there, and probably instilled by my mother and paternal grandmother, who bought me my first knitting needles.”
“It’s terrible we’re in a global pandemic but also it’s made us slow down and reconsider our lives,” she continues. “I’ve gotten orders from people who have said, ‘Look, we’re home, we haven’t been out, I’ve been looking at your garments since you started your business and could never have afforded it previously but now I can.’
“Every cloud has a silver lining. Last November, the Donegal County Council did a weekend of ‘Buy Donegal’ – my daughter and son had to come and help me, I have never been so busy!”
Bernie says, pre-pandemic, she would have had plans to expand her business. Now? She’s feeling pretty happy where she is.
“In 2020, I had orders from America – which, thankfully, they still took – but the rest of my orders were all shelved. At that stage, I had the tweed bought – and then I broke my ankle. It was like someone was telling me, ‘You can be a busy fool, as well.’ At the end of the day, I have to live and I have to be respected. I have learned to value myself and get what I need from my business aside loving what I do – and I really love it.”
“I’m 55,” she continues. “I need to enjoy life a little bit – and less is more. I want to make slow, make customers happy and maintain that heritage style with a contemporary twist.”
During the pandemic, Bernie’s online sales grew and she started working on making accessories, like headbands, scrunchies and face masks. She also wanted to find a way to give back to her community, so she put a call out on social media for people to nominate a frontline worker to receive a gift of a headband. That campaign was well-timed and intentioned but also brought a lot of traction to her website.
She continues to give €2 of each sale to Childline, which is a service she feels very strongly about. “It was horrendous what some children were living with during lockdown,” she says.
As for her current work, she plans to launch her new “Identity” collection exclusively online from mid-August and is planning a sample sale over the bank holiday weekend in August (starting 30 July).
Bernie’s unique selling point, aside from the designs themselves, is that she continues to support the local economy by choosing to purchase Irish-made linen and tweed from local mills. To her, this means she helps maintain local employment and these materials travel fewer miles to get to her shop, making them a more sustainable choice.
“It gives me great pride in knowing that I’m being sustainable,” she says. “Even the wool – and most of the tweed – is spun in Kilcar (Donegal Yarns), so you’re not going all over the world for tweed. It’s great to be able to go down and say, ‘This is my colour palette,’ and then get just 50m, so you can see how the tweed works and if people like it [before investing in a larger order].”
Tweed and linen design are examples of an Irish cottage industry worth preserving. Bernie makes each piece by hand, which can take time. She says the most difficult aspect of her business is finding someone with the right skillset who could help with multiple orders.
She feels that if more people understood the benefits of being a skilled sewer, weaver or knitter, it would become a more popular job as it provides a great work-life balance – especially when you have small children.
“Today, most of the people at a skill level you would like to have work for you are grandmothers, and they’re busy minding or spending time with their grandchildren,” she says.
Bernie points to a British social enterprise called Fashion Enter, which provides apprenticeship work for those interested in fashion and textiles. The apprentices do small batch sampling, grading and production for larger brands, like Marks and Spencers or ASOS.
“It would be great if we had a centre somewhere, say in Athlone, for all small Irish designers to have access to skilled workers,” she says. “I mean, if I got an order for 15 coats right now, that would take me the bones of six months to make – and then the season’s gone. Whereas if I could say, ‘Yeah, I can make you 15 coats,’ and go there and have help getting them made? A lot of designers currently and understandably need to go offshore to have things manufactured, though I don’t do that.”
Bernie believes if our traditional cottage industries don’t get support and skilled workers, she worries they will be lost.
“I teach part time at North West Regional College – the students all want to design, and they have creative minds which is great – but they don’t see that behind the scenes is actually more important than the designs,” she explains.
“Even to draft a pattern and get the prototype made could take the guts of a week. If students learned they could be a consultant and work with patterns and drawings, you know, it [would be a good earner for them] and would free up a lot of time for established designers.”