Stitch in time

Sat, Sep 15, 2012, 01:00

KNITWEAR:Made by mostly retired Irish craftspeople, Lucy Clarke’s designs for children are clothes to be passed down, writes ROISIN INGLE

LUCY CLARKE FIRST had the idea for her unique range of handmade, Irish-designed clothes when she sat knitting up a storm while pregnant with her first child. Clarke, a musician who, as a 14-year-old, was the drummer in prolific Dublin schoolgirl punk band Chicks, took up knitting while pregnant and proved a natural with the needles. Almost immediately friends began commissioning her signature hand-knitted stripey legwarmers and hats.

“They seemed to really like what I was making. I had been looking for hand-made Irish-designed children’s clothes for my own baby to wear but they were really hard to source, so I thought I’d try to do it myself,” she says. Now mother to daughter Jo Jo (4) and son Hart (2), she and her husband Simon O’Connor are finally ready to launch the Si+Lu range, an exclusively online business aimed at parents looking for children’s clothes that will last.

The hand-knitted stripey jumpers, beautifully lined tweed coats, old-fashioned hats and ear-warmers are neatly laid out on their wooden kitchen table in their home in Rathmines, Dublin 6. They are the kind of creations you can’t resist picking up just to give them a stroke.

Simply designed, they evoke an almost mythical era when it was perfectly natural for Irish children to go about their business dressed in Donegal tweed, soft Irish linen and rare alpaca or fine merino wool. The clothes are made by mostly retired craftspeople across the country, a highly skilled yet under-used resource Clarke is delighted to tap into.

The whole family is involved. O’Connor, a composer and graphic designer, has been in charge of all the branding and building the website. Jo Jo is running around their garden modelling a cute linen dress, while Hart looks adorable in his merino safari jacket.

The clothes are about as far away as you can get from the cheap as chips chain-store gear rendered unwearable by one run through the washing machine.

“They are definitely clothes to be passed down,” says Clarke of the range, which has nothing to fear from the washing machine and starts from €12. The most expensive items are the handwoven tweed coats at €160.

“We know we can’t compete with high-street prices as each piece is individually crafted, but it was important to us that even though they are luxury goods they were still affordable.”

The couple tested demand by bringing early creations to markets around Dublin, where they were pleased to discover their range had instant appeal with parents. Unable to secure start-up funding, Clarke’s main support while starting the business came from Dublin City Enterprise Board’s mentoring programme. “It was a brilliant experience; I learnt so much.”

It’s been “a joy”, she says, working with more than 30 craftspeople around the country who in the past have worked for everyone from Blarney Woollen Mills to Lainey Keogh. Most of them are retired, their average age 70, with one knitter in her early 80s. Clarke sends the materials and patterns to the knitters, seamstresses and weavers and encourages them to make the clothes at their own pace. Each craftsperson gets 25-30 per cent of the garment price.

“That’s the great thing about being an online business, we are able to pass a decent chunk on to the craftsperson instead of to the retailers,” says Clarke. She is also happy her company has “only a tiny carbon footprint”.

Music is still a hugely important part of Clarke’s life, and she performs with Tieranniesaur, the Choice-nominated band of her old Chicks bandmate Annie Tierney. Another ex- Chick, Isabel Reyes Feeney, is busy designing textiles for Si+Lu’s spring/summer collection.

Sitting in their sun-drenched garden, the couple are clearly delighted to be launching the range. “It’s been a real labour of love, down to the very last detail,” says O’Connor. When you order from Si+Lu the clothes come carefully wrapped in red and white striped boxes inspired by the original packaging used by Switzer’s of Dublin in the 1950s, which O’Connor came across through his work as curator with the Little Museum of Dublin.

“We just wanted to create something authentically Irish and sustainable that feeds the local economy and uses all the incredible skills and materials available in this country,” says Clarke.

For more, see siandlu.com

Joan Molloy, knitter

I’m 77 and a knitter for Si+Lu. Lucy sends bags of wool by courier to my home near New Ross, Co Wexford. I enjoy working for Lucy; her designs are unique and I think she’ll do very well.

I’ve been knitting for people for 67 years. My mother taught me when I was eight, and when I was 10 I went to school wearing a jumper I’d made, and the parents of girls in the school started to ask me to make things. I remember one nun asking me to make knitted stockings for her mother. That was the start of it all.

I’ve worked for lots of companies over the years . . . Blarney Woolen Mills and A Touch of Irish. Twenty years ago I had 350 people knitting for me; now I have around 25. After I got married it was a way of holding down a job when other people had to give up work because of the marriage bar.

I am addicting to knitting now. I don’t drink or smoke, so I have to do something. I knit late into the night; it takes my mind of things that might be bothering me. Knitting is good for your health, although when I had a heart operation four years ago, I brought my knitting to the Mater Hospital and it was taken off me.

I live alone since my husband died 11 years ago and have a home help that comes in to do the housework. She does the heavy work; I do the light work, sitting knitting and looking at her.

Knitting never gets boring. I love seeing how things turn out. The only thing I can’t do is a pom-pom so I get one of my daughters to do those, they just fall asunder on me.

I’ll always be knitting. I’ve told them when I die to put needles and a ball of wool on the coffin.

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