Wool wizards: The best Irish knitwear designers working today

Talent and design get knitting needles working their magic

Just as Philip Treacy’s success created a whole generation of Irish milliners, so Lainey Keogh’s magic needles sparked in Irish designers a new interest in transforming traditional knitting skills. Keogh’s experimentation with yarns and sensual knits pushed the boundaries of cashmere and while her export business to the US thrives, others follow in her wake.

Lucy Downes

The most successful is Lucy Downes of Sphere One who uses premium quality “whisper weight” cashmere, and is a designer whose obsession with comfortable clothing has always been at the heart of her collections.

Along with Lainey, she continues to be the only Irish designer showing in Paris twice a year and buys her yarn from Scottish mill Todd & Duncan, one of the oldest and most skilled yarn spinners in the world.

Her winter collection “Drama Series”, cut generously, has elements of military and utilitarian wear with its shoulder ribbed patches, oversized boyfriend sweaters and sweatshirts with loose necklines. Her colours are her own and dyed specially – one called Lugano is a melange of two subtle shades plied together to give a depth of hue and vibrancy. “Knitting is in our blood,” she says.

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Original design and serious technical knowhow define her work. Armed with a first class honours degree from NCAD, she spent 10 years gaining quality control experience with Donna Karan in New York. Since founding Sphere One, 10 years ago, she has been stocked in Havana, Kalu, Clothes Peg and Juju at home and now sells to over 40 stores internationally with 75 per cent of production exported to Australia, Japan, Switzerland, the UK, the US and Canada.

Ros Duke

“I work with Irish heritage patterns like herringbone, chevron and bobbles and always reference Aran knitwear, but what I am doing is really different – modern, urban and cool,” says Duke who graduated with an honours degree from NCAD, then furthered her career with an advanced pattern-making course in Central St Martins before spending the next 10 years with John Rocha.

Her winter collection is her fourth and is characterised by its detailed surface textures in neutral colours with “left of field” salmon shades and rust. For her it is important that her work, aimed at an urban lifestyle and appealing to all age groups, retains a handmade quality and the sense that the knit has come from its maker.

Everything is made in Ireland. She is stocked in Clothes Peg in Sutton and Granny’s Bottom Drawer in Kinsale where her scarves “run out of the shop. Americans totally get what I am doing.” Future plans will focus on expanding the US market.

Sian Jacobs

“Irish women are never more than five feet away from a little cardigan; it’s our damp weather and we like to layer up,” says Jacobs, who is self taught and whose sequinned cashmere scarves have become her signature. After completing a fashion course, she followed in her father’s footsteps as a textile agent in London for a few years working with Italian print mills. Blessed with a good eye and a feel for colour, she then became a fashion agent and discovered how popular cashmere was in the Irish market.

It was on a trip to Kathmandu in Nepal in 2008 with one of the first people to introduce pashminas that she found a knitwear factory and left some designs for samples. Launched at Dublin Fashion Week, the collection was an instant success, helped by the fact that she had already established a customer base and was conscious of customer feedback from the stores.

Her sequinned cashmere scarves and little cardigans have become best sellers and work for all ages and all events –weddings, christenings, travel, holidays. Each season she reworks established styles in new ways – her latest collection features combed cashmere with a felted look in plain colours – electric blues, yellows, geranium and digital prints. “Sleeve shapes have more volume this season – are wider and looser and not so close fitting – that’s what people want.”

Lucy Nagle

Nagle is the first to admit she is not a designer, but has a sure eye for colour and texture. A decade’s experience working in interior design in London plus a love of fashion led her to knitwear as an alternative career on her return to Dublin.

Lack of formal training did not deter her from seeking out designers, factories and agents to help set up a brand in her own name with the kind of cashmere knits that she would wear herself – cool, contemporary and comfortable.

The Lucy Nagle collection with its easygoing sweaters, star and camouflage knits and accessories was established three years ago, her big break coming when she was invited to show at Create in Brown Thomas in 2013.

Since then she has not looked back, her most popular items being hoodies and cardigans in new shades each season. For winter her new looks in dusty blues, camouflage greys, greens and dark blues, feature ruffles, polka dots and plaits and each style comes in XL.

Nagle's collection can be found at brownthomas.com, in all their stores and at lucynagle.com. Next month she launches a capsule silk sleepwear collection to complement her cashmeres and bamboo cotton T-shirts.