It was still three weeks to “Galway” when I drove over the cattle grate, past the grazing sheep and down the lane to Ardskeabeg House near Corofin.
It is rare I find myself in the county unless Ballybrit is the destination and although the races were still those few weeks off, they were none the less still partly the reason for the trip west.
Milliner Caithriona King came out the back door of her house to greet me.
Now, while the juxtaposition between the striking lady in the red suit and spikey crown and the farm that surrounds her were obvious, nothing about it jarred, as Caithriona is a comfortable in high fashion as she is in high farming.
While not from a farm, she is from Corofin and tells me “I went all around the place and ended up coming back here marrying a Corofin man”.
That journey started in the “Pres” in Athenry before Fine Art in Waterford Institute of Technology (now SETU) where in her last year Caithriona specialised in sculpture and photography.
“Millinery wasn’t even in the equation, I was supposed to go on and do art teaching.
I worked in a photographer’s for a few years. Then I saw a course in the Wombourne School of Millinery in London [since closed].
The only one I knew at that time doing millinery was Philip Treacy. I was like, I might like that so I went to London.”
Over several trips, she learned basic millinery skills, how to block a hat with a crown and brim, but admits “it was not very creative, that comes later when you get more comfortable.
That’s how it started. To be fair, it started on the kitchen table, moved from the kitchen table to the playroom and then ten years ago, we built on the studio.
However, the path to winning awards and seeing her styles in the line-up at ladies days was not direct.
For several years, Caithriona worked with the Brothers of Charity as a care assistant but while pregnant with her fourth child, the crunch came.
“The hats were getting busier. It’s word of mouth and you have to build up a reputation. Pregnant with Darragh, I brought the other three [Shane, Aoife and Emily] to Australia to see my sister.
The work life balance was just …, you know, with Stephen farming - yes a massive support - but when it comes to springtime, he’s not around. I was working 13 hour shifts.
We went to Australia in August and Stephen said he’d have the studio built when we got home. So when I came home, it was half built”, she laughs at the memory.
A career break followed and Caithriona King has been full time at hats for ten years.
Make it dramatic
Pillbox hats may be the bread and butter but to succeed means to innovate in millinery.
In 2015, a win at the Irish Fashion Innovation Awards gave Caithriona the push to create the more dramatic and stand-out pieces, she is renowned for.
“I do lovely pieces for weddings but you need to have something that’s a little bit different.
Something that someone looks at and says ‘that’s a Caithriona King piece, that’s wow’. You have to be inventing and [using] different materials.
When I went to Wombourne, they were all just sinamay hats, whereas now I use jinsin, I use plastics, I use leathers.
“When I get a new fabric, I play with it to see what you can do. See how you can mould it? Can it be heated? Can you stretch it?
Can it be coloured? Can you cut it? Will it stay in shape? Do you have to wire a shape to make a piece? Trial and error, trial and error? I actually don’t draw anything? I think a lot of the time the material dictates what can be done with it.”
Caithriona reached down, picking up a half made moon shaped creation lying beside me and said “for instance, this piece is going to Galway.
That’s a table mat! “No way” I exclaim but; “yes” she confirms “that’s a table mat!”
“You have to be inventive with your materials and what you have available. My Dad makes my blocks. I use a lot of foam blocks, but out of necessity.
Your material dictates what you can do, like with Brexit now and with what’s going on in the world, our materials aren’t as accessible as they were.
Selecting a well weathered piece of foam in a shape distinctive to her, she says “So that is one of the first blocks he made me.
That has blocked hundreds of hats and that’s made out of a type of an insulation that is used in houses.”
What is the source of Caithriona’s inspiration I ask? While she is mulling this over, daughter Aoife interjects; “Mam would be just looking at things when we are going about and say ‘jez, I wonder would that work in a hat?’”
She thanks her daughter playfully, agreeing but also attributing some creativity to the genes; “My mam, Nora is very creative.
Would have done an awful lot of knitting and Dad’s a carpenter. I remember mam making Irish dancing costumes and my grandmother doing the embroidery on them. She taught me how to embroider.
Galway races, every year gives Caithriona that extra push to create something different.
“So you’re kind of the full year developing an idea. All my pieces would have that element of sculpture and architectural flow to them.”
Walking into the colourful studio, my eye was caught by a turquoise and purple work of sculpted art.
Sinamay I asked drawn toward it? “No”, she replies “that is hand sculpted jinsin, completely unique.”
Important to Caithriona is that you are wearing the piece and the piece is not wearing you.
This depends on your personality; “you’re not going to wear a big outlandish piece if you are quiet.
The event itself is also a factor; she says “If I am going to Galway races I’m not going to wear a small little pillbox I’m going to wear the most stand-out piece I can create. They are wearable art.”
For the promotion, is it the influencers and famous people you want wearing your hats, I ask?
She laughs, “Well all promotion is good but really I want normal ladies. You know, that love getting dressed up and are going out to have a really good day at the races.
I love making a piece for a girl that’s kind of mad into her style and wants to wear something different. And I think that comes across. Does that make sense?”
However, the promotional element and the effort involved is appreciated by Caithriona.
The lady that is wearing the aforementioned table cloth hat to Galway has showcased her pieces previously with success.
“She was in the 2019 line-up for best dressed. I won best hat that year actually.
When the last twenty were whittled down to 10, I had four or five hats inside the tent. Galway races is my best week for PR.
You have the opportunity to do the bigger showy off, wow pieces that you don’t get an opportunity to do any other time of the year.
Family is another reason Caithriona followed her millinery career path. And as busy as they are, this year, her husband beef and sheep farmer Stephen (Canavan) took on the role of IFA Galway county chairman.
“It’s a big commitment but he wants to make a difference to farm family income.
We are a prime example, like, everything that we do here is made on the farm. We have to make our income from here.
There’s no other option. There’s nobody paying you on Friday evening, so we have to make it work.
I think we’re unique in that, I can have my business here, Stephen has his business here.
We can rear our kids here. If there’s anything wrong, we are here for them. There’s something to be said for that.
Although no two Caithriona King pieces will ever be identical, you can order one bespoke in colours of your choosing.
Ideally, she likes to meet the person in the studio but as travelling to Galway is not always possible she also facilitates video call consultations.
She explains the process; “At the [in person] consultation, we would try on several pieces, which is important.
Coming you may have a particular piece in mind but when you put it on, it might not actually suit you. So Amii comes to me and says ‘I want that piece’.
We try it on and then decide it’s a bit wide so maybe narrow that in, make it a little bit higher, taller or smaller. It depends on the shape of your face, whether you have a fringe, whether you’re wearing your hair up or down.
If you have a very long, oval face, ideally, you would wear a piece that would come across the head.
If you are wide at the cheekbones, you would probably wear a piece that might come up a little bit more.
Caithriona also teaches millinery. Classes are generally run in October and November time.
“I also do hen parties. It’s a team bonding sort of thing. They’d make their own little hats and as I always say, they go home from the hen party with something more than a headache.”