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Co Down fashion expert Jane is serving up new ideas to revitalise linen, one of our most famous exports

 

Ulster is well known around the world for its history of linen manufacture - and Co Down woman Jane McCann is on a mission to bring the fine fabric back to the forefront of fashion. As she displays work in a special exhibition this month, she tells Stephanie Bell about her distinguished career and exciting plans

She has blazed a trail as a global innovator in fashion and fabrics and now Professor Jane McCann has turned her considerable skills and passion to helping revitalise linen in Northern Ireland.

The Co Down designer is one of a number of talented people whose work is on display across Northern Ireland as part of August Craft Month.

Jane has enjoyed a fascinating career, largely spent in England where among her many claims to fame she was involved in the global relaunch of a new fabric to replace nylon in the Seventies, developing the very first activewear fabrics and setting up the world's first and only Master's programme in Performance Sportswear Design at the University of Derby in 1995.

She was also director of the Smart Clothes and Wearable Technologies Research Centre from 2004 until 2012 at what is now the University of South Wales.

The 70-year-old mum of two - she has a daughter, Jessie (26), and son, Tom (33) - has made a big impact on the local linen industry since returning home to live in her native Donagahdee in 2013.

Determined to reintroduce linen as a modern wearable, endurable everyday fabric, she also has her eye on developing it for composite use in industry and to that end is working with Invest NI on an exciting new project.

For August Craft Month she has put together Linen Futures, bringing together local designers with some from South Wales focusing on innovative approaches to celebrating the local linen and flax heritage.

An exhibition of their work is currently showing at Art in the Loft Gallery in Portaferry.

She first held her Linen Futures exhibition at the R Space Gallery in Lisburn in 2014 and was then invited to show it at the Ulster Museum in 2016.

It paved the way for Northern Ireland's Linen Biennale which celebrates the past, present and future landscape of linen through an extended arts festival presented and hosted by multiple venues across the province until October.

The Linen Biennale stimulates new thinking about Ireland's oldest textile products: flax and linen.

It promotes what Joan is now passionate about - connecting our internationally renowned linen heritage with contemporary uses.

Indefatigable and passionate abut her subject, 70-year-old Jane has already made her mark on the promotion of linen in the five short years she has been back living in Northern Ireland and now works from her home close to the beach on Donagahdee's Warren Road beside where her former childhood home stood.

She was the only daughter of John and Nancy McCann. Her dad John ran the well-known McCann chain of pubs in Belfast which was founded by his grandfather, Alexander McCann, who eventually owned 16 bars in the city. Jane's dad sold off the business in the early Seventies after the Troubles broke out.

Jane went to school in Bangor and then to Belfast College of Art and on to the Royal College of Art in London.

She says: "I was always drawing and making clothes and as a child made clothes for my dolls. I knew I would do something in fashion and when I went to study at the Royal College of Art it was very glamorous.

"It was quite exciting in London at the end of the Sixties. After graduating I came home and worked for Barbour Linen Threads in a summer job for three months and then a friend offered me a job in Paris where I spent two years.

"In Paris I worked for a design agency and met such a lot of people and did such a range of different design work, it was great training."

She returned to London in 1972 where she worked with large textile companies developing garments to show off their fabrics at trade fairs.

It was while working for international fabric company DuPont that a young Jane helped in the worldwide relaunch of a new fabric to replace nylon and first got involved in designing outdoor wear, an area where she became a renowned innovator.

She explains: "Nylon had a bad image and DuPont wanted to relaunch it as a different fibre that was less tacky and they also launched it as a range of outdoor wear.

"Having lived by the sea back home I had been on beaches and boats and I knew that the outdoor wear back then was very basic and all you had was a choice of very stiff, sweaty garments.

"DuPont was also launching its first range into the high street and I had to develop garments so that the company could show people like Marks & Spencer what their ski wear and outdoor wear would look like.

"As a result, C&A and M&S started to stock ski wear in the early Eighties which before that had been quite an elitist thing," she adds.

Jane also started teaching and soon gained an international reputation as a leading authority on the subject of performance sportswear in the world of education.

She established the world's first and only master's degree course in outdoor wear which attracted students from all over the world and led to her teaching in China, where she still travels to teach short courses on functional clothing.

Her return to Northern Ireland in 2013 ignited her interest in linen and once again she is now using her inventive approach to revitalise it as an everyday product.

Jane lost her parents in 2003, aged 91 and 95, and inherited the house she now lives in by the sea.

It is here she has hatched new ideas for modern use of linen -and not just in fashion but in industry at large.

She is particularly interested in how linen and flax fibres can be used in composite materials for sectors such as furniture and sports equipment.

However, as a fashion item too she wants to prove that it is both fashionable and durable, and to this end has created The Belfast Jacket in a joint venture with Chris Tyndall of Loft Trading.

She explains: "I retired from my academic job in 2012 and came home and set up a design workshop here and I have been full of ideas.

"I had an exhibition in the Ulster Museum and one day a businessman came into the museum and commented that he must tell his wife about the exhibition.

"It made me realise that linen and fashion is perceived as girls' stuff and yet linen textiles are all around us.

"I am working with Invest NI on how to take flax into other products such as car manufacture, aircraft and domestic furniture.

"I don't want to sit and make clothes but I do want to show how we can take something simple like linen and embroider it or customise it. I am trying to show that we can make things ourselves again.

"It's not about fast fashion. Linen is so durable and can be reused and redesigned. It's about creating something that won't end up in landfill. Currently around 60% of the clothes we buy do end up in landfill.

"It's about creating clothes we feel good in and also that mean something to us.

"And it can be fashion that is enduring, not fuddy duddy, but something that can be dressed up or dressed down. It is about longevity and reusing and reimagining something and making garments that are long lasting or that can be easily unpicked and used for tea cloths again.

"Me and my colleague Sirpa Morsky, who is from Finland, created some clothes for the exhibition on this concept and Chris Tyndall saw what we had made and asked if we could do something unique - and we came up with the Belfast Jacket.

"It has been designed using the basic shirt box shape only customised in different ways.

"It is for men at the moment but it is unisex. It is all very exciting as it will be going into production and will be made and marketed here in Northern Ireland and we will be launching it at a special fashion show in the Titanic Quarter in October."

Jane is also using her considerable international contacts to stage a conference on linen in Belfast this October, already generating interest from people as far away as China, Canada and New York.

Full details on the conference and information on the fashion show will be revealed at a later date.

Meanwhile, samples of Jane's work and fashion items made from linen can be seen in a special linen exhibition in Portaferry as part of August Craft Month.

Northern Ireland is at the forefront of the burgeoning craft movement across the globe.

The month-long celebration, enabled by CRAFT NI and supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland through the National Lottery, showcases the excellence and diversity of craft in Northern Ireland and provides a fantastic opportunity for everyone to make, see, learn about and buy craft.

Jan Irwin of CRAFT NI said: "We are thrilled to be co-ordinating the 12th annual August Craft Month. The events are a wonderful opportunity to highlight the remarkable quality of our artists, designers and makers in Northern Ireland.

"The public and our visitors are encouraged to engage with our makers, to enjoy the experiences and to learn more from some of our top talent. The dedicated August Craft Month website holds all the information regarding when and where these exceptional events will take place."

Across all pockets of Northern Ireland there are more than 100 hands-on and intimate events including workshops, exhibitions featuring world-class artists, fun festivals, studio grand openings and insightful talks.

August Craft Month boasts a host of new offerings for 2018 including workshops that vary in focus from wellbeing to genealogy tracing, and glass bead design to dress making.

For more information on the events across Northern Ireland can be found here.

Many events are documenting the history of the linen culture across Northern Ireland, telling the story of our landscape's history through craft and bespoke creations.

The linen industry is one of the first and most simplistic textile industries, rooted firmly in Irish history and culture.

The manufacture of linen was once Ireland's most important industry. In the 18th century, before industrialisation, linen was woven domestically and carried to Dublin for sale to English merchants. This was of great benefit to the prosperity of Ireland's capital, but it was the province of Ulster that fostered the industry and sustained it for more than three centuries.

Throughout the 1700s and until around 1830 hand spinning of linen yarn was carried out in domestic homes by women and from a young age children learned to spin and wind yarn.

Factory weaving at this stage was rare and only found with specialist weaving of fine cambrics or damasks on drawlooms.

The most famous of the latter in Ireland was Coulson's Manufactory in Lisburn, established in 1766. The firm's extensive royal and aristocratic patronage brought it deserved acclaim for its fine table linens.

For more than a century, north-east Ulster was the chief linen producing region in the British Isles and, in the 50 years before the Great War (1914-1918), the world.

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