The Co Down caped crusader giving tweed a modern twist
After a PR career, Sara Hall returned to her first love, fashion, to set up a company, which makes beautiful capes. One of the famous musical Sands family, she talks to Una Brankin.
Hugh Sands was clearing space upstairs in his Mayobridge farmhouse recently, when he came across an old sketchbook full of drawings of evening gowns.
His "horse mad" only daughter, Sara, had forgotten all about the sketches she'd made for her school formal dress. Since then, she had buried her creative streak in a successful public relations career, in Belfast, Dublin and Canada. But Hugh's find coincided with a change of direction for Sara - back towards design.
The 33-year-old now has her own company, Cocoon Luxury Wear, making classic capes from designer leftovers - and not your average sewing-room floor scraps.
"We use Harris Tweed, ex-designer material from Paris and Milan fashion houses," says Sara, a mother-of-one. "I grew up wearing Harris Tweed jackets; I even had one when I was at Ulster University. It's so durable and quite retro, which I like."
Before setting up the brand, Sara came home to the family farm, from Canada, to marry her South African business partner David Hall, whom she met in Vancouver. Her father Hugh, is the only non-musical member of the famous Sands Family.
"He can hold a tune but he did other things with his life," Sara explains. "Before he took over the farm, he worked in Canada, which gave me and my brothers, Owen and Hugh, Canadian citizenship. I took advantage of that for a year out, after working for PR agencies in Belfast and Dublin since I graduated, but got a job straight away, managing communications in the Chamber of Commerce in Vancouver."
Like many these days, Sara logged on to the Plenty of Fish online dating site keen to make some new friends before the big move to Canada, when she met David, who had an internet-based advertising business.
"I started chatting to David online in February 2010, before I moved to Vancouver in June 2010," she explains. "I was travelling on my own and knowing no one there, I was trying to meet some friends online. I wasn't particularly looking for anyone romantically. I met up with David and we were friends for about a year before we started dating. It's a true modern love story."
Originally from Botswana, David popped the question high in the Rocky Mountains.
"He proposed in a sky lift on top of Grouse Mountain with a beautiful Forties vintage ring which was a family heirloom," adds Sara. "Luckily he had his wits about him when he popped the question as there were grizzly bears roaming around beneath us."
The couple's first child, Arianna, was born in September 2012, and played a central role in their wedding in Mayobridge the following year. The ceremony was held on the family farm with some rustic vintage style and a relaxed festival atmosphere. Bails of straw were used as seating for the proceedings.
"I'm a bit of a country girl - I'm happiest back at the farm," Sara admits. "I grew up riding horses and have always known I wanted to get married on our farm. There is nowhere else that would have fitted what I wanted, which was a relaxed fun weekend where everyone could let their hair down.
"The theme for our wedding decor was farmer chic with a twist of vintage. We had bunches of daisies, bunting, festoon lighting, pastels and pretty florals everywhere, and we had Harris Tweed jackets complete with elbow patches and paired them with flat caps for the guys."
This time, Sara didn't design her dress - she wore a day and an evening one by Elody Bride, Newry - but the seeds for her new venture had been planted. It took motherhood to slow down her busy PR career and show her the way to her real vocation.
She recalls: "I was a stay-at-home mum in Vancouver at that stage. But I was having coffee with a friend one day, and she asked me what I really wanted to do with my life. It was just random - I said I'd love to make capes for kids.
"I'd got one for Arianna and I couldn't find another anywhere when she grew out of it. So, I thought to myself - just do it. I sourced some stunning ex-designer material and made a small collection of capes to fit one to four or five-year-olds.
"We launched Cocoon Baby Wear in February this year and in two weeks, through Facebook alone, the capes were sold out."
Sara came up with the name Cocoon to evoke the security and warmth of a cape.
But isn't tweed scratchy on the skin?
"Our capes are fully lined so it doesn't touch the skin, but Harris Tweed is quite soft anyway. It's a beautiful range of luxury fabrics," she explains. "Soon after that, I started receiving floods of emails and messages asking if I could make a lady's cape, so that's what we're working on now - with big slouchy hoods and pockets. Hacking jackets and coats are next."
Harris Tweed is the only fabric in the world governed by an Act of Parliament (1993) and still made in the time-honoured way specified in the act: "With 100% pure virgin wool, dyed, spun and finished in the outer Hebrides and woven by hand by the islanders at their own homes on the islands of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra."
The Harris Tweed Authority statutory body monitors all production on the islands on a daily basis. Every 50 metres of length of fabric is checked by their representatives before being stamped by hand with a distinctive orb trademark, which is found in every genuine Harris Tweed garment.
David is currently working with his wife at The Hub in Newry, a shared e-commerce centre. The couple work from a similar set-up in Spain, where they have settled since moving from Canada.
"I wanted to be closer to home," says Sara. "We were so far away so we decided on Spain. The thing was, David wasn't sure about living in Ireland, especially with the weather here, but since we got married in Mayobridge, in June 2013, he loves it and wants to spend more time here, which suits me.
"I'm back home - with the advantage of being able to escape to the sun in Spain - doing something I absolutely love. It is 100% more fulfilling than working in a PR agency. I really want to modernise tweed and bring it back into fashion, and doing what you really love in life is amazing."
- For details on Sara's products, visit www.cocoonluxe.com. Pre-order price for ladies capes is £220 online. Cocoon Luxury Wear is also stocked by Belfast milliner Grainne Maher, visit www.grainnemaher.com