The indigenous Irish clothing industry is making a small but steady comeback with companies tapping into the zeitgeist for sustainable, ethical, and locally produced clothing for adults and kids.
As every parent knows, dressing little ones can sometimes be a battle of wills. If the child objects to things that stick into them, such as labels or seams, it can ramp up the irritability factor. The situation can become even more fraught if a child has sensory processing issues and doesn’t like how some things feel on their skin.
Kata O'Donovan is the founder of west Cork clothing company, Cotton Caterpillars, which makes a range of baby, adult and children's clothing. In response to requests from desperate parents, O'Donovan has stepped up to make items for children (and adults) with special sensory needs, including socks with no toe seams, garments without scratchy labels and pants for babies with hip dysplasia.
She will also make matching garments for parents and kids.
Cotton Caterpillars’ clothing is made from premium organic cotton and printed with low impact dyes. The emphasis is on making soft, comfortable garments that are both easy to wear and easy for parents to get their kids into.
One of the practical features of the 0-18 months’ range is that as the baby grows, the clothes “grow” with them. “Like all good caterpillars, the garments magically transform,” O’Donovan says. “The garment lengths are longer than average and the curled-up cuffs roll out as the baby has growth spurts. The idea is to produce garments that last longer to improve sustainability while also saving the customer money.”
O'Donovan is a third-generation dressmaker who grew up watching her mother and grandmothers making clothes and scouring fabric shops with an expert eye for interesting remnants. She originally trained as a dental technician in her native Hungary before coming to Ireland in 2006 and subsequently marrying a local. When she was expecting her first child, she began making baby clothes and this snowballed into what has since become Cotton Caterpillars.
“The idea of making comfortable and funky kids’ clothing was prompted by the fact that I found it really difficult to find suitable clothing for my baby on the high street because he suffered from eczema and the fabrics irritated his skin,” she says. “When my firstborn was around six months-old, I came across skinny jeans. I shook my head thinking to myself that there was no way skinny jeans would even get past his ankles.
“I really enjoyed seeing my little guy wearing what I’d made for him and I soon realised I wasn’t the only one struggling to find gender neutral, comfortable, multicoloured clothes that would allow children to play and explore the world freely. That’s how I got started.”
O'Donovan invested just over €20,000 to get Cotton Caterpillars off the ground and her business has received support from the Clonakilty Local Enterprise Office. She currently makes everything herself but as the volume of sales is picking up, she has plans to recruit two people to help her.
Like many small businesses, O’Donovan is facing the classic dilemma of whether to make the push for larger volumes or stay small and niche. To some extent she has already made that decision as she is not keen to let anyone else make her garments.
You know where your clothes have come from, who made them and what our ethos and values are
"I will never compromise on being able to stand over the ethical production of my clothes so, yes, this may be limiting my growth to some extent," she says. "But it is very important to me to produce clothing that has a low impact on the environment and is safe and sustainable for our children to wear."
Also tapping in to the growing demand for sustainable, ethical and locally produced clothing are the founders of Galway-based Mise Tusa, Meritta Gorman-Geoghegan and her daughter Bridget Geoghegan. Meritta has been designing clothes for 40 years and set up the Ail Ruin design centre in Clarinbridge in 1992. She has now teamed up with her daughter, recently returned from London with a stint in marketing with Selfridges under her belt, to pivot and rebrand Ail Ruin design as Mise Tusa.
“The Covid-19 pandemic was the first time the shop had been closed for so long since it opened and this gave us the time to reflect and decide what we wanted the business to be in the future. We recognised that what people need and want from their clothing and life is different now and our responsibility to the planet has become clearer than ever,” says Meritta.
Mise Tusa is employing four people and the new collection is currently in production and will be launched in the autumn. "We are the antithesis of fast fashion," says Bridget who is currently writing a thesis on the human rights implications of fast fashion as part of her master's degree in international law at NUI Galway.
“With our range you know where your clothes have come from, who made them and what our ethos and values are. We don’t want to be just another rail of clothes in some big retailer,” she says. “Our aim is to be sustainable and transparent. We won’t waste anything and our ethos is buy less, buy better.
“By creating our own pieces, most of which are made to order, we have control over quantities compared to those who outsource production. We are also very passionate about minimising waste so we design and cut in a way that keeps off-cut fabric to the minimum. Where there are off-cuts we turn them into hair scrunchies and ties or we collect them to create meditation cushions. Proceeds from the sales of the cushions will be going to charity.”
There are several collections under the Mise Tusa umbrella including Create, which is based around a neutral colour palette; Imagine, which is more colourful and has a feminine vintage twist, and Movement which is all about comfort with a designer finish.
The company is deliberately avoiding targeting any specific age group. Instead, its aim is to create timeless pieces that anyone from their 20s upwards can mix and match to style their own look. Pieces will be available off the rail and designed to order. Mise Tusa will sell its clothing through its shop in Clarinbridge and online where it already has a loyal international following from its previous incarnation.
Funding the rebrand has cost in the order of €80,000 and involved bringing in specialist machinery to sew fabrics such as bamboo. “We’ve been very lucky to have had the support of Galway Local Enterprise Office throughout the process,” says Meritta. “They encouraged us to apply for the business expansion grant and have been incredibly supportive over the years, but especially during Covid. They encouraged us and gave us the confidence to pursue our new venture.”