Every country has a personal interpretation of craft; its distinct voice and place emerges through the making. Aoibheann MacNamara and Triona Lillis understand the importance of place. The friends speak of the West of Ireland as if it were a loved one and draw on its richness, mysticism, traditions and people to create garments that envelope you in their way of life.
The result is The Tweed Project: a collective endeavour to maintain Irish culture and textile traditions, reinvented in effortless utilitarian design for today. This is linen and tweed, but not as you know it. As big proponents of the slow movement in Ireland, The Tweed Project shuns the rules of fashion, moodboards and collections in favour of physical connections, transparency and intuition. They live largely away from the glare of our always-on world; leaving the pair to create, converse and have the craic.
Wilma: You deal primarily in linens and tweeds. What attracts you to these materials?
Triona: They’re materials native to Ireland and a big part of our textiles history. We recently toured the linen industry in Northern Ireland and it was shocking to see it in such a downturn. Flax is no longer homegrown but we assumed that linen was still woven there. We were disheartened to find it was just being dyed [yet still labelled Made in Ireland]. We’re getting further away from the source, from being authentic.
Is that what inspired your current statement linen t-shirts?
Aoibheann: Yes, our intention behind the ‘Fucking Made in Ireland’ t-shirts is to highlight the lack of transparency in the fashion industry. As in, don’t say something is Irish when it’s not. The collection was inspired by that linen tour. Our focus this year is to have honest conversations about Irish craft and interrogate where products come from.
How does the relationship work between you and your manufacturers?
Triona: We started The Tweed Project working solely with Molloy & Sons. They’re based in Ardara and it felt right as that’s where Aoibheann is from. There was an instant kinship between us and they’re expert craftspeople. We’ve started to look at other weavers for special projects because Molloy & Sons doesn’t do hand weaving, so we’re in talks with Mourne Textiles. If weaving is your thing, then hand weaving is the ultimate goal. Mourne Textiles is hugely popular because of that. All of them in the room looming, the stew is on the range, they have lunch together. It’s cottage industry in the truest sense.
Did that longing to maintain traditions inspire The Tweed Project?
Aoibheann: For us, it’s not about putting out a product but about subverting the tradition of that product. Our approach changes all the time, from the way we shoot to the messages we tell through the collections. Our one constant is the West of Ireland, our muse. That’s our source of creativity, our essence and the thing we celebrate globally. We have different strains to the project and they change depending on how much prosecco we’ve had!
You two seem to have a lot of fun together. And then your garments are in quiet dialogue with the world around you.
Aoibheann: We’re motivated to use our indigenous Irish fabrics and traditions in contemporary ways. We’re very small-scale in our production from an environmental perspective and also because we don’t want to create unnecessairly. Championing Irish craft and enjoying that process is as important to us as selling the products.
Triona: I find that people connect more with us and the story. We’re so enveloped in the place our products come from that it surpasses the act of making. People also respond to the imagery we put forward but that’s us just us and our friends having a laugh. They’re interesting people in our lives and it showcases what we’re about.
Do you think a return to the handmade signals a desire for more physical connections?
Aoibheann: The slow movement as the antithesis to technology is something we can all relate to and it’s certainly a factor in the way we approach our work, both for The Tweed Project and our other jobs [Aoibhann owns Ard Bia restaurant, a local food institution and driving force behind Galway’s slow food movement. Triona is a costume designer for TV and film]. When we’re meeting with suppliers or working on the collections it’s a way to disconnect from the digital world and have real conversations. I don’t read magazines, don’t have a TV or listen to the radio. Now and then I look at Instagram. All media does is create needs.
Our one constant is the West of Ireland, our muse
It sounds like you have a fluid friendship and partnership. How does the business work day to day?
Triona: We run the company in a very organic way, between a few calls and texts of no more than two hours a week. It is a small part of our lives but generates a huge amount of fulfilment and a big part of our hearts. We’re answerable to no one and that allows you to create in a very different way. We gently roll out products throughout the year – products are either on the website or they’re not. The studio holds samples as everything is made bespoke.
Where do you find inspiration?
Triona: We often get ideas doing interviews. I remember doing a talk and it dawned on me that when you take money out of the equation it totally frees you to be creative. If you have another income to support a creative project it’s a very liberating way of running a business. We’re not crazy: if this was our main income stream we’d have to compromise, do things differently. But these chats are like creative therapy for us!
I love how you’re disrupting the notion of how retail is supposed to operate every step of the way.
Aoibheann: I’d rather die than be tied to a high street retail model, it’s so consumption-focused. We’re interested in challenging how a fashion business operates. It doesn’t have to be thrashing out things people don’t need season after season, remortgaging the house in order to produce, produce, produce. Our products are the messenger for a bigger story, and that’s what people take away with them.
We have different strains to the project that change depending on how much prosecco we’ve had
Why do you think there is a renewed interest in quality Irish crafts?
Triona: There’s a confidence in Irish craft that wasn’t there before. When we launched in 2014, the Irish recession was coming to an end and you could feel a collective desire to put our stamp back on the world. Irish Design 2015 did a great job of reviving the design industry and suddenly young people started feeling there was something in Ireland for them. There were new and exciting reasons to stay.
Aoibheann: We’re part of a community that’s supported by a strong infrastructure. The faces of Irish craft greet you as soon as you land in Dublin airport. You are immediately aware that you are entering a craft country. Craft ties us to the country, to its traditions and people. Visitors feel it too and want to take a bit of that dialogue home with them.