In the first of our series on Cork Craft Month, John Bohane speaks to knitwear designer Ursula McGrath about how knitwear isn’t just for humans
CORK Craft Month, which showcases the best of contemporary Irish craft, got off to a very successful start with the Baile/Home opening which was held in Ballydehob last Saturday evening.
This year’s line-up features over 70 workshops, masterclasses, artist talks, trails, and demonstrations. It is taking place throughout the month of August.
Featuring both physical and online events, along with free family-friendly activities, the month will provide opportunities for people to explore the best of local artisan crafts.
Ursula McGrath will be participating in Cork Craft Month for the first time this year. Ursula is a highly-skilled, experienced, and artistically creative knitwear designer who has worked in the wonderful world of wool/designing and knitting for over 25 years.
Ms McGrath said she has always had a passion for designing knitwear.
“It is a craft. I was always interested as a kid. It is what I did in college. I did a course in craft, textiles and knitwear. I got a job with Tivoli Spinners and I ended up staying there for 27 years,” she said.
There, Ursula was designing and writing knitting patterns along with designing/making high fashion ladies ready-to-wear knitwear.
Ms McGrath loved her time working with Tivoli Spinners.
“We did the knitting patterns and ready to wear ladies knitwear which was right up my street. We sold at home, in the UK and in the States. We did trade shows in the UK. It was a super experience and a wonderful life for 27 years.”
Following the closure of Tivoli Spinners, the talented knitwear designer had some soul searching to do with regard to her next move.
“We were gutted when Tivoli Spinners closed down. We were like a family. I had to do some soul searching.
“I was unemployed and thought to myself what the hell am I going to do? The knitting industry was having a very hard time in Ireland.
“I toyed around with a few different ideas. One door closed and another door opened, fortunately. I started out on my own in September 2019.
“I am lucky I have a bunch of happy home knitters that are happy to keep knitting for me. They are workers who I had working for me for Tivoli.
“When Tivoli closed they were thrilled when I started this business as I was able to get them knitting again. It also kept them all going throughout Covid.
“I drop off the yarn before going back to pick up the garments,” she added.
Her designs are inspired by her love of Heritage Aran knits, our natural landscape and how we treasure our family. Her knitwear is all hand knit in Cork by Ursula and her team of dedicated home knitters. All pieces are made with special attention to detail and pieces can also be made to order.
Always using a design-thinking methodology, putting the customer at the heart of everything she does, her niche expertise is in taking products from concept and design, right through to a finished knitting pattern or a ready-to-wear garment.
Ursula’s collection of knitwear consists of two collections — ‘Irish Dog Designs’ is a range of handmade canine jackets and hats, while ‘Irish Handknits by Ursula’ is a collection of handmade Aran hats, scarves and mitts.
The talented knitwear designer spotted a niche in the market for garments for dogs which she has exploited very successfully. She is thrilled to combine her love for dogs and knitwear.
“I have been into dogs all my life. I grew up on a farm and if my parents couldn’t find me they would call the dog and whatever direction the dog came from they knew I was nearby.
“I made a handful of sweaters for dogs and I gave them to my sister who lives in the States and they sold like hotcakes. It was purely for experimental purposes.
“I decided to give it a go. I didn’t even know how much to charge for them. That is how it got started.
“I do garments for all dogs and they come in all shapes and sizes to suit all needs. It is handmade, 100% wool and top quality. It is the same as I did for human beings.
“I have now transferred the same into dogs. I do various colours and styles. I also embroider the name of the dog onto the garments if required.
“I have recently added that and I hope that will be a good addition,” she added.
Ursula lives in East Cork with her family, hens, ducks, dogs, and a very productive vegetable garden and is very grateful to the Local Enterprise Office for their guidance.
“I did a business course with the Local Enterprise Office and the rest is history. There has been a lot of hard work since then to reach this stage.
“The Local Enterprise Office was great. They were a huge support. They assign you a mentor. I had a slow start. I had no idea about social media but I did an Instagram course which was vital as it is all about social media now. It is all done online.
“I learned how to use Instagram from a marketing perspective and that has done wonders for me.”
Ms McGrath has enjoyed a great start since she established her business in September 2019. She thankfully didn’t suffer any downturn in business from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I had a super winter. It is quiet at this time of the year as people don’t need to put a woolly sweater on their dog.
“I had a bumper few months in the lead up to the summer. Covid had no impact at all.”
The Cork knitwear designer is looking forward to Cork Craft Month and the future.
“I am looking forward to Cork Craft Month and I am very positive about the future.
“People are into dogs and spend a lot of money on their pets. Sometimes people get scarves or hats to match what they pick out for the dogs. There is a market there.
“Happy customers send me pictures of their dogs wearing the garments. I love it and it is great fun.”