SUCCESS came as something of a surprise to husband-and-wife team Anke and Eugene McKernan, who set up their woollen mills in Tuamgraney in the 1980s. “We really didn’t plan it,” Anke told The Champion. “We were originally weavers, but realised that it was the market for hand-crafted scarves that was really going best for us. In 1995 we replaced our handlooms with a 120-year-old cast iron shuttle loom, and in 2012 we purchased our first knitting machine. We just couldn’t have imagined how the business would grow.”
Now, McKernan Woollen Mills, produces over 500 different product lines which combine the crafts of weaving and knitting in innovative designs, textures and styles.
With 70% of the pre-Covid business coming for export channels – to countries including Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Holland, the US and Canada – the company has had to switch gears to some extent because of the pandemic, and put more of a focus on retail business in outlets including their own shop in Tuamgraney.
“Since Covid-19 hit, we have had to reduce our staff from 20 to ten,” Anke said. “That has been very hard, but, despite everything, we are still doing relatively well. We are lucky in that we don’t export to the UK and aren’t affected by Brexit, so that, at least, is something we don’t have to worry about.”
At a personal level, the slow-down in business brought about by the pandemic has provided the McKernans with time to reflect and re-evaluate. “We bought a camper van last year and didn’t get to use it until this summer,” Anke said. “We also got a chance to look at the way we do things and to upgrade our website. We have never done that before, because there was simply never the time. Because East Clare comes under the Ireland’s Hidden Heartlands brand, we have been able to capitalise on that as part of our new site, so we’ve overhauled it and added new images and videos. Instagram and Facebook are also important platforms for us. Instagram is also a great way to see what others are doing and I really like it.”
Keeping an eye on trends and ideas from a range of sources is vital in the McKernan’s field, as is innovating in terms of design.
“We have hundreds of different product lines and I work on the design side,” explained Anke. “I don’t really know where the inspiration comes from. I think you’ve got to be playful and to try out lots of things. Things don’t always turn out perfectly, lots of things can go wrong. When you experiment and try out some ideas, you can pick and choose from the different elements until you’ve got something that really works.
“Having trained as handweavers, our designs are based on a deep understanding of textiles and the knowledge of how structure , colour and yarn interact with each other. Even after all these years, we still have great fun when shade cards arrive and we get to play with new colour combinations.”
To Anke, who is originally from Hannover, Germany, and spent six years in Donegal learning the craft of weaving, an appreciation and knowledge of craft work is something that we are all in danger of losing.
“When you go into some of the big chain stores, clothes are so cheap and people don’t realise that there’s a process involved in making and creating things,” she said. “Mass production in low wage countries has created fast fashion, which maybe some people are beginning to question and move away from. It would be great if more people understood the process behind the product and the time and effort that goes into handcrafting products. What we do is very labour intenstive.”
The exquisite, hand-crafted scarves produced by the McKernans and their team, are highly sought after as fashion items, and while the company doesn’t necessarily target the tourist market, it still accounts for a significant percentage of their sales. “What we make isn’t like an Aran jumper,” noted Anke. “Our products are not limited to the tourist market. Our scarves are stocked in boutiques and bought by Irish people as well as visitors and our range reflections the seasons of fashion.”
The decimation of the international tourism sector, though, has still had an impact on the wollen mills. “We have a shop in Canada that we sell to and, in normal times, they would cater for up to 400,000 cruise ship visitors,” she said. “Airport sales are gone and the closure of House of Ireland, which would have stocked a lot of our products, has had an effect too.”
Retail sales have now become a more important part of the business, online and in the shop in Tuamgraney, where the McKernans are currently making the best of the restrictions by offering a click and collect service.
“Retail wasn’t really a huge thing for us before because our big focus is wholesale and we work with a number of agents in different countries,” Anke explained. “The shop will be more important this year, though, and we’re hoping it will do well. Because of the restrictions, we have been able to spend the last few weeks stocking up. When the restrictions lift, we are hoping to start our tours again at the shop in Tuamgraney and to welcome people who are looking for things to do closer to home. It’s funny because when people come in, the men are often grumbling at bit that the tour is something for women, but once they watch Eugene weaving on our 120 year-old loom, they don’t want to leave! It’s a bit of an educatin in how things are made and they just love it.”
Ordinarily, Christmas wouldn’t have been especially busy for the McKernans, but that could bet set to change this year. “Normally, we would get wholesale orders in spring for the autumn season,” Anke said. “Now, we have put more of a focus on retail and we’re getting set to make the most of the season. We are hoping that people will travel to the shop and enjoy all of what Tuamgraney, Scariff and the East Clare area has to offer. We have a chocolate maker in the area and a lot of other attractions that people enjoy visiting. I think there’s been a real shift in people’s thinking and a drive to find out about and to support what is local, and that’s a really welcome development.”