Long road from investment banking to selling knitting designs

Wild Geese: Jennifer Shiels Toland, New York state

Leaving Ireland in the early 1990s was a "no brainer" for Jennifer Shiels Toland who moved initially to the UK to embark on the first of three successful careers.

The Beaumont native left for London in 1993 after completing a computer science and maths degree in UCD.

“Back then, you got double the salary and paid half the income tax compared to Ireland, so it didn’t take much convincing,” she says.

"I worked at UBS, the Swiss multinational investment bank and financial services company in the City of London, designing business solutions. I became director of equity research, working with global clients including Bloomberg. It was a great job, which brought me all around the world for almost eight years."

After meeting her now husband, the couple put their career plans on hold when he suffered a pulmonary embolism.

“We got a wake-up call and decided to take a break from our careers, which kept us working round the clock. So we travelled overland through Asia, including Mongolia, the Gobi desert, overland across China and getting the Trans Siberian Express.”

Upon returning to Europe in 2002, Toland decided on a career change and studied interior architecture at the Chelsea College of Art and Design, which is part of the University of the Arts in London before returning to Ireland to start a family.

When the couple moved to Blackrock in 2004, Ireland was in the thick of the Celtic Tiger and Toland got a job as an interior designer and project manager at Cantwell & Crowley Architects and Interior Designers, also based in Blackrock.

The arrival of her son, and subsequent time out, saw her take up knitting.

“I had knitted a lot when I was younger, but I extended my repertoire to children’s clothes and toys, hats and gifts from babies to 11 years old.

“Someone suggested I start selling the items at Airfield market and soon I was selling items at craft fairs and markets across Dublin. Christmas was a really busy time.

“I founded an online selling portal in 2008 selling knitted gifts, but when you knit everything yourself, your market stays pretty small.”

After a brief stint in California in 2011, Toland and her family settled in Larchmont on the Long Island Sound, which is closer to Ireland and just 30 minutes from her favourite city – New York.

"You can see the Manhattan skyline from here. So you get a small-town life with the best city in the world just behind you."

Toland created a studio in her home and launched a knitwear brand, JST Knitwear Designs from there.

“Initially I thought of creating a book of patterns, but modern communication allows for a much easier online system people can use around the world.

"The brand sells designs rather than actual knitted items. I offer YouTube tutorials, techniques and patterns, which you can download on the site jstknitweardesigns.com. The patterns are very descriptive, detailing what materials to use, how much yarn, what gauge, needles and all the sizes of buttons with detailed material types. It's very straightforward."

Her patterns have appeared in knitting magazines across the US including Knit Simple, Knit Noro Accessories and several books. In September 2020, her design appeared on the front cover of Vogue Knitting.

“It was such a surprise, as I had sent the item months previously and forgotten about it.

“My designs are inspired by the architecture and rugged landscape of rural Ireland, combined with a passion for simplicity. I use a lot of Irish yarn, make patterns for Boann shawls and hats made from Aran yarns from Donegal.

It was a lengthy process to set up but, during Covid-19 times, people picked up knitting so business thrived.

"Knitting became even more popular when British diver Tom Daley was seen knitting in the grandstands of the Olympic Games in Tokyo."

It's a far cry from investment banking, but business acumen goes a long way, especially in the US where people are very supportive of entrepreneurs, she says.

“Irish people are more bashful about their accomplishments, and I haven’t caught onto the US way of selling myself, but patterns are being downloaded around the world.”

Toland says the Long Island Sound offers great family life, due to its proximity to New York, but also its close proximity to the Catskills mountain range, which offer year-round adventure from skiing in winter to hiking in summer.

“Last winter was great, because the ski resorts were open, but they were nice and empty because of Covid -19. It just takes two hours to get there from here, which is the last thing you think of when you think of living in New York.

“I’ve made great relationships with people over here. It’s a melting pot. There’s a great sense of community here. The local Playland Amusement park with the backdrop of Manhattan skyline never gets old. It’s like an 80s movie.

“I’m in New York city all the time, and really missed the buzz of it during the lockdown, so it’s great to see it come to life again.”

Toland, like many Irish people, is looking forward to returning to Ireland after president Joe Biden lifted the travel ban between the two countries from sometime next month.

“It’s been two years since I was home and I can’t wait to see family and friends, and my mother in particular. It’s going to be emotional.”

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