The designer, saddle maker and bookbinder drawing on the past in different ways

Exceptional craft skills and a commitment to sustainability featured strongly in this year’s RDS Craft Awards

Mná i Bhláth - the award winning collection by Róisín Pierce. Photograph: Deo Suveera

Mná i Bhláth - the award winning collection by Róisín Pierce. Photograph: Deo Suveera

 

A boxing champion and the women of the Magdalene laundries may have little in common, but each provided conceptual sources for the fashion collections of two of the five winners of this year’s RDS Craft Awards. National College of Art and Design (NCAD) graduates designers Róisín Pierce and Izzy O’Reilly in their own way celebrate and challenge heritage craftmaking skills. Both are committed to sustainability and zero waste. Both draw on the past in different ways.

Róisín Pierce
Róisín Pierce

A textile design graduate, Pierce’s extraordinary craftsmanship broke new ground with her ornate all white collection Mná i Bhláth (Women in Bloom). Hand smocked and embroidered, its lush, sensuous textures referenced the baptismal, bridal and communion dresses made in the Magdalene laundries, “a visual symbol of a deeper message”, she says. It went on to create a sensation in France last year carrying off two awards, one being the inaugural Chanel Métiers accolade and the other the Prix de Public at the renowned International Fashion and Photographic Festival in Hyerés.

Mná i Bhláth - Roisin Pierce’s award winning collection. Photograph: Deo Suveera
Mná i Bhláth - Róisín Pierce’s award-winning collection. Photograph: Deo Suveera

Pierce is currently working on her upcoming collection to be premiered in October in the historic Villa Romaine in Hyerés, once a holiday retreat for Christian Dior, now a fashion resource and research centre. Called Bláthanna Fiáin (Wildflowers), it is a continuation of her first collection focusing on Irish womanhood and femininity and their troubled relationship, again referencing the then so-called “fallen” Magdalene women. Her fabrics are all white – organza, broderie anglaise, torchon lace and tulle, similar to those used in creating the bridal gowns in the laundries by these women.

For this she has collaborated with three of Chanel’s specialist ateliers in Paris, milliners Maison Michel, fabric specialists Maison Paloma and the leatherworkers Les Atelier de Verneuil. Each piece is flower themed. Prompted by the idea of “deflowering” and women’s sexuality, the sculptural ruffles, bows and hand smocked broderie anglaise are deliberately over decorated to mimic this visually.

Roisin Pierce: from her prizewinning collection Mná i Bhláth embroidered broderie anglaise. Photograph: Deo Suveera
Róisín Pierce: from her prizewinning collection Mná i Bhláth embroidered broderie anglaise. Photograph: Deo Suveera

Her use of Clones crochet lace which originated as a famine relief project highlights an Irish craft in danger of disappearing. She will use the €10,000 award to collaborate with a group of older women who make lace with her every month and “with my area of soft sculpture, pull Irish lace in unexpected ways to make it modern for a new generation.”
Photography by Deo Suveera, styling Ruth Higginbotham, model Javielis Gonzalez of Elite.

Izzy O’Reilly

O’Reilly’s graduate women’s wear collection called Delia’s Prizefighter was inspired by her grandparents – “the tailored femininity of my grandmother Delia depicted by tailored separates contrasting with the bulging latex inflatables reminiscent of the muscles of her prizefighter husband (Hugh), himself a stylish dresser”. For this she won the Overall Student Future Makers award last year. Since then she has been working as an assistant stylist on fashion shoots while building her own collection at home in Lucan, Co Dublin, redesigning her portfolio and her website.

The Rubber Match by Izzy O Reilly from her prizewinning collection Delia's Prize Fighter
The Rubber Match by Izzy O'Reilly from her prizewinning collection Delia's Prize Fighter

Her pieces are made using materials sourced from recycling centres and zero waste pattern cutting, but with her bursary money, she now wants to do an MA in either London or Antwerp and advance her skillset. “I am not yet ready to leave the educational space and this bursary has made doing a masters possible.” Last July, an innovative latex inflatable dress called Rubber Match from her graduate collection was part of a mixed media exhibition in the National Gallery curated by Andrea Horan that included pieces from designers Simone Rocha and Richard Malone.

Izzy O Reilly with her Rubber
Izzy O'Reilly with her Rubber

Other winners

Exceptional craft skills and a commitment to sustainability were also evident in the three other RDS winners: jeweller Mark Newman, saddlery maker Lucy Cushley and bookbinder Éilís Murphy. Newman, a jewellery and metalwork graduate who draws from civil engineering for his angular designs is currently completing a BA in Birmingham specialising in design for industry. The bursary enables him to learn new techniques, gain experience as an educator and invest in new equipment. marknewmanjewellery.com  

A selection of jewellery work by Mark Newman
A selection of jewellery work by Mark Newman

Murphy, one of only a handful of bookbinders in Ireland, has a BA in Fine Art and brings a singular artistic flair to a traditional craft. She makes artist’s books, memory books, guest books and albums and works closely with clients (allow four weeks for delivery). Her most recent major commission was for the Goethe Institute for their new library consisting of four little books enclosed in a box that told the history and evolution of books. From Mayo, she now lives in the Burren in Co Clare and wants to develop a ready made journal and sketch book made from high quality, sustainable, recycled materials and her handmade paste papers as well as developing collaborations with small presses, artists, writers, and architects to create special hardbound limited editions. foldedleaf.ie

Éilís Murphy, bookbinder, at work in her studio in the Burren, Co Clare
Éilís Murphy, bookbinder, at work in her studio in the Burren, Co Clare

Cushley who specialises in the endangered craft of horse collar making, discovered her vocation when she was given a fleece and asked to make a saddle cover. Always interested in tack, she makes saddles, bridles and harnesses in her workshop in Co Down as well carrying out renovations and repairs. “Harnesses can be more complicated and so many trades have died out that nice buckles, for instance, can be hard to get”, she says.

Saddle maker Lucy Cushley in her workroom in Co Down
Saddle maker Lucy Cushley in her workroom in Co Down

And it’s not just horses; she also works with the Donkey Breed Society of Northern Ireland making harnesses for working animals and has even fashioned collars for bulls. Her bursary will enable her to invest in an industrial sewing machine and complete her bridle, saddle and harness making qualifications. saddlerystudent.com

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