Manufacturing clothing in Ireland in the 21st century is not an easy game to be in. High costs, cheap imports and little State support provide major challenges.
For Hanna Hats, a Donegal-based milliner, that has been operating for almost a century, this is especially true. The company manufactures traditional hats and caps at its factory in Donegal town and in recent years has faced growing competition from cheap imports.
"As I say to our customers when they come to me, they can come to the factory, they can see the hat being made, they can chat to the staff, they can see all the products, all the raw material, and we put it together right here," says Eleanor Hanna, general manager and third-generation owner of the family business.
Many other companies sell products as “designed in Ireland” or “created in Ireland” when they have in fact been manufactured abroad – particularly in the Far East.
“It’s happening with knitted jumpers, it’s happening with tweed headwear, it’s happening with suits, it’s happening with a lot of products in Ireland,” says Hanna.
“We’ve no problem with people doing it as long as it says on the product,” she adds. “I think products should say where they are made and a lot of the time they don’t.”
Foreign imports masquerading as Irish-made has become a particular issue since the turn of the millennium.
“It’s disheartening when you go out and you see how easy it is for somebody to set it up and do it and get the caps made in whatever country they want,” says Hanna.
The company has responded by upping its marketing game. “The story’s not being told right,” says Hanna. “We’re looking at new markets and showing we have a good high-end product to sell to those markets. And that’s what we’re going to push more on – that it is 100 per cent made in Ireland and that it is a luxury product.”
Hanna Hats has been in existence since 1924, when Eleanor's grandfather David Hanna, having seen an ad in a local newspaper, cycled from Belfast to Donegal town to interview for an apprenticeship with a local tailor. When the head tailor died two years later, David took over the operation.
He ran a successful suit-tailoring operation for 40 years, bringing his four sons into the fold. In 1964, with demand for tailored suits beginning to decline, he decided to shift the focus of his business to hat-making.
The downturn in the 1980s hit the company hard and it was forced into liquidation in 1986, the year after David died.
David’s son John and his wife Mary bought the company back in 1991 and focusing sales on the United States through catalogues and the internet saw it grow steadily over the following decades.
Challenges have persisted, but the family has sought to adapt. The price of tweed is constantly increasing – rising 5 per cent this year alone. So the company has invested in new machinery to cut down on wastage.
Finding skilled staff in modern times has also proved a significant hurdle. “In the past few years, we’ve advertised for fully qualified machinists and we have not had one reply,” says Hanna. “Now we’ve come to terms with. If we need new machinists, we’ve just gone to people who want to get back into employment and we train them in from scratch.”
The 2008 crash saw the company reduce its working week to three days temporarily. But, despite difficulties, the business continues to grow. This year, it entered the Russian market and has plans to expand its presence in Scandinavia and Germany.
Young people are proving a fruitful new market also, with new fashion trends fuelled by television shows like Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire.
“It’s changed the whole look so that it’s more trendy to wear tweed caps and hats. It’s not just an old man who wears them anymore,” says Hanna.
“People will request it if it is on a TV show. Or even [if they see] a celebrity wearing it. If you’ve something similar to what they’re wearing, it could set a trend no problem whatsoever,” she adds.
The company is now run by the family’s third generation – Eleanor, Amanda Jane and John Patrick – and, with a staff of 31, is part of the fabric of Donegal town.
“We want to keep this going for our town, for our staff. We want to keep the heritage going for the story of our family, and we’re so passionate about it.”