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IMAGELocal: Northern Irish Knitwear Designer Mary Callan

#IMAGELocal is our new series spotlighting Irish makers. Check out our interview Tory Long, the jewellery designer giving everyone wallet-eyes with her delicate handcrafted gold and silver pieces. 

Mary Callan is one of the Irish knitwear scenes most consistent talents. This Central Saint Martin’s graduate work has achieved an under-the-radar stamp of cool from stylists and fashion journalists in recent times, and we’ve got a feeling 2016 will bring her nothing but bountiful mainstream praise. Callan is based near the Mourne Mountains in County Down where she creates textured designs, with a dash of surrealist print, from natural yarns such as Scottish cashmere, lambswool and Italian Merino wool.

You’ve been set up as your own label from 2011. How would sum up your ‘journey’ these past few years in three words?I’ve been making knitwear independently since 2011 but I feel like the direction of the business has really taken shape this past year. The journey so far has been exploratory, experimental and a tad meandering! When you’re a creative, the nuts and bolts of business don’t come naturally to you. I’ve had to become a better all-rounder and learn to make practical as well as creative decisions.

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Why did you pursue fashion? Who or what influenced you growing up? Was there a light bulb moment?
I was the fashion cliché – the child drawing clothes and making from a young age. I actually used to draw clothing catalogues complete with prices and descriptions. I grew up in a house with nice art books and paintings on the walls. My mother ran her own antiques business and I used to accompany her on buying trips. I’d trawl through vintage 30s evening dresses and the like. I remember being awe struck by these beautiful garments. These were my fashion light bulb moments. Back then you couldn’t live stream London Fashion week to your bedroom.

You count stints with Chloe and John Rocha on your early CV. What was your role with those labels?
At John Rocha I was assisting the womenswear and textile designers. At Chloe I assisted the knitwear and embroidery designers. The work at both places involved a lot of hands-on manipulation of fabrics and surface decoration. These would be sent off and replicated by their factories. In Chloe we would be given briefs to do research for. I loved this – pulling out relevant images and creating storyboards for the collection.

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You’ve worked at Milan and London Fashion Week and attended Central Saint Martins. You now work from a base near the Mourne mountains. What’s the difference in pace and how you work there from when you lived in London?
It wouldn’t be truthful to say that the move back home was an easy adjustment. I love cities – you walk down your street at 8 o’clock at night and there’s still people moving around and shops open. I missed that buzz and life. I also missed being part of a large fashion network. That said, I could not have started my business without moving back to my home town. Now I’ve come to value home and the quality of life here in Northern Ireland. I’m a ten minute walk from the foot of the Mourne Mountains. People here are friendly, down to earth and great fun. It’s been very refreshing.

Can you take us through the process of making a piece? From yarn selection to factory scoping and then getting the finished product to customers?
Every piece is sampled on my hand frame knitting machine. The creative process starts with research – gathering images that inspire you. Sometimes you don’t know why they appeal but you put them on your wall and a narrative starts to emerge. The next stage is choosing the yarn and colour and getting knitting. You can do a hundred experiments on the knitting machine and come out with only a handful of swatches you are happy with. The subsequent stages involve lots of drawing, calculating the knit pattern and hand framing the final piece. To put this into production you bring your sample to a factory and technicians program it into computerised knitting machinery. Often your design has to be altered to fit the automated factory processes and this can be frustrating. The factory then do a sample garment and you’re ready to take orders.

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Is there anything you would have done differently in the past few years?
That’s a difficult question as I think I’ve made lots of mistakes but these have all been valuable learning curves. I wish I had sought advice on branding and business sooner. In the first two years I produced a wide variety of products which were not consistent with any particular brand identity. Again though, I wouldn’t change this as it was valuable market research. I learnt what customers want and which designs are possible to put into production. It’s all brought me to where I am now and I feel good about my current direction.

When it comes to knitwear, how do you make things new? What does a typical Mary Callan moodboard look like?
There’s so much scope to come up with new ideas in knitwear. The very process of knitting is experimental and often takes you in a different direction than what you had in mind. It’s an alchemy of yarn, machine and a myriad of techniques. Change one of these elements when you’re knitting and you’ll get something new and unexpected. Modern day computerised knitting machinery opens up even more technical possibilities. My mood boards are usually colourful and graphic. You’ll find everything on there from surrealism to traditional knitwear, tribal textiles to landscape photography, 70s macrame to Perry Ogden’s Pony Kids.

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I was scrolling through your Instagram and saw one yellow polo neck and immediately thought of Tippi Hedren in the Hitchcock movies The Birds and Marnie. Do movies or literature provoke your work?
Film actually does not influence my work in particular although I do love the aesthetic of film noir and those shimmering forties film stars. Music and narrative inspire me. For example the collection you reference on Instagram was inspired by Kate Bush’s ‘Hounds of Love’ album. The second half is a story about a girl cast adrift at sea, hallucinating and have out of body experiences. I gathered images of water and eerie seascapes and the fabrics were developed from there.

You’ve been to the States and Bermuda in the past twelve months. Where is left on your travel bucket list?
Mostly cold places. I love Edvard Munch so Norway is on my list, as is any part of Scandanavia. I’ve always wanted to see Iceland and Canada. I think the Artic would be beautiful. I’d love to visit Japan and West Africa for their amazing textiles.

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Finally, have you got a mantra, and are you willing to share?
I find mantras too cheesy! If I’m frustrated or feeling lost, I take comfort in remembering that effort pays off in the end, even when you don’t know where that end will be. I’ve learnt that I cope better focusing on short term goals and letting intimidating ‘five year life plans’ take care of themselves.

Visit marycallanknitwear.com to shop Mary’s creations. Mary Callan is one of the exhibitors at Showcase – Ireland’s Creative Expo next week. See showcaseireland.com for more information.

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