Moulding a modern business from the roots of an ancient craft

Aran Woollen Mills has its roots in providing employment for local women. Now its owner Vincent Hughes is planning an expansion of the company to meet modern demands

Vincent Hughes’s earliest memories of growing up in the west of Ireland in the 1970s were not of watching his mother knitting by the fireplace, but watching her run an entire network of knitters, weavers, embroiderers and craftspeople, all from the family home in Westport, Co Mayo.

“She would have had a couple of hundred hand-knitters and 30 or 40 people around the town doing embroidery on products. She would be buying in products from other people,” recalls Hughes. “We all have early memories of us all working together, helping Mum and Dad in the business. And helping them with making deliveries, helping them collect the products from outworkers, sometimes making the products and helping them to package the products out to customers.”

Máire Hughes and her husband Pádraig founded the company that is now Aran Woollen Mills back in 1965. From the outset, Máire was determined to give much-needed employment to local people — a philosophy that still drives the company today. Now run by Vincent and his brother Padraig, it still focuses very much on the traditions of knitwear, but also on the challenges of selling a traditional craft product in today’s disposable, fast-fashion world.

That includes broadening connections with its customer base through the launch last week of its first direct-to-consumer website. This will bring the brand directly to customers’ screens, showcasing the business’s product range, which stretches well beyond the traditional Aran sweater. The site will open up new avenues for the company to connect with consumers, says Hughes.

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With state-of-the-art photography and videography, as well as high-end design, the platform stands apart from your usual boilerplate corporate websites, and gives Aran Woollen Mills an impressive shop window on the world.

“The team we had on it were very good and worked hard together, and it’s a compliment to them that it looks so well and doesn’t look like other people’s websites. There are many different routes to the market and we have to explore all those different routes,” Hughes says.

The new website was also motivated by the huge shift to online purchasing prompted by Covid-19.

“Back in March 2020, when the pandemic hit, all our orders were basically cancelled in the space of a week,” Hughes says. “So here we were with a business with no route to market for three or four months. After that, we started to figure out what to do. We had a presence on the internet already but the internet really zoomed during that period, which kept our factories going.

“We did some research and found that you had to digitise and you had to create designs for businesses to survive. We were always design-driven, but we decided needed to digitise, so we found that we had to do two things. We had to create a B2C [business to consumer] website — all our competitors already had them — and also a B2B [business to business] portal, so our business customers can log on to the site, see how much they owe, see their credit limit, see what they have on order and what they have in stock, and order directly online and get order confirmation automatically. And that will be launched in the next couple of weeks as well.”

When I was ten years of age, I saw women coming into our shop and selling us the Aran sweaters that they’d hand-knitted. So I got a love for it there

Bringing a traditional craft into a modern business setting is a balancing act that Hughes has performed with aplomb, in a career that goes back to when he was a young boy helping out in the family’s store on Inis Mór on the Aran Islands.

“When I was ten years of age,” he recalls, “I saw women coming into our shop and selling us the Aran sweaters that they’d hand-knitted. So I got a love for it there.”

After studying knitwear technology in college in England, Hughes worked for a few years in the business before coming back to Westport and setting up Aran Woollen Mills with his brother Padraig. With his knowledge of the wider textile industry, he was able to create improved designs and introduce new materials into the manufacturing process.

“Aran wool was very hard in those days,” he says. “Today, we’re using a super-soft merino wool which has a cashmere feel. People used to say they had allergies to wool, but I’ve never heard anyone say they have an allergy to super-soft merino when they try it. So we have changed with the business. We are design-led.”

Máire and Padraig Hughes had opened their first Carraig Donn crafts shop in Westport in 1965, with the Aran Islands store opening on Inis Mór three years later.

“Mum and Dad had three reasons for doing that. One was to keep the craft alive in the country. Two was to give employment to married women, because they couldn’t work outside the home. And the third reason was that they had 13 children and they wanted to keep them at home working in the family business, and teaching them all about the business.”

Hughes and his siblings learned a lot about the business from working in the Inis Mór shop, and also from helping out in their father’s workwear business, Portwest.

“When they opened up on the Aran Islands, that’s when we went out there and cut our teeth managing a store at the age of 16, reporting the sales every day, ordering the stock, doing out whatever VAT had to be done in those days,” he says. “Sending back the money or lodging the money and what have you. It was a fabulous experience at the age of 16 to do that kind of thing.

“We all got a love for it because of the enthusiasm of our parents. The dinner table was like the boardroom table, we’d discuss what the issues of the day were. And I’ve tried to do the same thing with my children, who all worked their summers in the business, have a love for the business, and are at director level at this stage. And we’ll see what happens in the future.”

As the country comes out of its pandemic cocoon, Hughes is looking to drive growth in Aran Woollen Mills while staying faithful to the company’s stated desire to preserve the past, champion the present and look forward to a bright future.

“By the end of the year, we’ll be 15 per cent busier than in 2019, which was our busiest year to that point. It’s still internet-driven. Three months after Covid hit in 2020, the internet went up 160 per cent for us. All of a sudden the autumn-winter trade, even though we hadn’t retail stores, went up on the internet. It gave everyone the push to sell on the internet and be confident.”

During Covid, the company was focused on avoiding lay-offs, which can be devastating to a rural community. Now it is focused on increasing its staffing levels, and has opened a new factory in Belmullet in the last six months. It is also leasing the former Gateway dancehall in the north Mayo town from the Brogan family and, with help from Government bodies including Údarás na Gaeltachta and Enterprise Ireland, will be expanding the manufacturing business to a 24,000 sq ft plant by the end of this year.

We can get into everybody’s home, into their living-rooms, every time. It’s how we use that time to sell our product that’s important

The company employs about 110 people and, by the end of next year, Hughes expects to have added another 50 to the workforce. It seems the future really is bright for traditional Irish knitwear.

“Obviously the American market is our biggest, but we have customers in the Netherlands and Germany, and in Japan we do very well,” he says. “The reason the American market has been the biggest is because that’s where people are putting their marketing spend. But that will change, and people will start to push these other markets.

“Two years ago, there was no talk of selling in the southern hemisphere, but during our summer, some are selling to the southern hemisphere because it’s winter there. It’s a matter of using your imagination. We can get into everybody’s home, into their living-rooms, every time. It’s how we use that time to sell our product that’s important.”

The energy and cost of living crises, not to mention Brexit, have cast a shadow over Irish business, and Aran Woollen Mills has had to navigate a new world of uncertainty and insecurity.

“The energy costs in our business have gone up about 60 per cent,” Hughes says. “But we were lucky enough months ago that we locked in prices for two years, so we’re not too exposed to further energy increases.

“Brexit, without a doubt, has changed things. We had a yarn supplier in our office the other day and he was saying that they used to keep products in the UK. Now they don’t keep it there, because the hassle of getting goods through the UK sometimes can be very difficult. It slows the process down.

“You might get the product through the first time, but then the next time they’ll say the paperwork isn’t right, even though it’s been filled out the same way. So there are problems. The supply chain issue is very serious, and I think it will continue for some time. I’m not sure if even the shippers know where the stuff is at times.”

Overall, though, compared to the sudden shutdown of business during Covid, there’s a renewed sense of optimism that no matter how serious the crisis, somehow businesses will come through.

“In my particular trade, retail stores were closed for two years, there wasn’t a tourist in the country and we were hit badly,” Hughes says. “This year, it’s come back 70 per cent, and we’re looking at it coming back 100 per cent by next year.

“So generally, I would say there’s optimism, but there are price increases as well because of the cost of living. So that’s a natural process, although we’ll try to keep the price increases as small as possible.”

Hughes doesn’t get out to Inis Mór too often these days, as he’s busy running the business in Westport, but he does find time to go fishing with his brothers off the west coast, where their main catch is mackerel. He also enjoys dancing, particularly jiving. “It’s a west of Ireland thing — you could go to a dancehall and there’d be 1,000 people at it, and them all with big smiles on their faces, no alcohol, having a great time.”

The new website highlights the company’s links with Mayo’s heritage, and also showcases the wide range of knitwear designs that Aran Woollen Mills has developed over the years, including sweaters, hats, scarves, mitts and throws, along with recent additions such as women’s dresses and doggy sweaters. All Aran’s products are made from sustainable materials, with a keen focus on animal welfare.

“The only thing we put into our products is a bit of steam,” Hughes says. “We only use natural fibres, and we have no plans to change away from that. We source our wool from small farmers, and we would be querying our yarn suppliers all the time on their methods and their husbandry.

“We’d use about seven tonnes of wool a week. You can’t get soft merino in Ireland, we just don’t have those kinds of sheep. But that’s what our customers want, and that’s 50 per cent of our business now. It comes from Peru and eastern Europe. Our merino sheep come from Spain.

“We do use what we call a worsted wool. That is sent over to Bradford to be processed, and then we buy back some of that wool.”

Aran Woollen Mills’s designs are deeply rooted in tradition, but are made for modern living – and with a winter of high energy prices ahead, are only more likely to come into their own.

CV

Name: Vincent Hughes.

Age: 62.

Position: owner, Aran Woollen Mills.

Family: One of 13 siblings, he has four children - Declan, Fiona, Ciara and Annie

Interests: enjoys fishing with his brothers off the west coast, where their main catch is mackerel.

Something you might expect: he and his siblings grew up working in the family’s Carraig Donn business or Portwest, which his father owned.

Something that might surprise: he’s a dance fan, particularly jive. “It’s a west of Ireland thing,” he says.