The best way to build a sustainable, ethical and environmentally friendly brand is to it right from the outset. This is exactly what Amy Anderson has done with Kindred of Ireland and also
only uses one fabric in her designs, Irish Linen. Even though Kindred is a young brand it has very deep roots. At the height of linen production in Ireland, Belfast was known as Linenopolis because it was the biggest producer of linen in the world. There will be very few families who were not involved in its production at one point of other, from farm to factory and this holds true for Amy. After WWII there was a huge decline in the industry in Ireland to the point where flax is only beginning to be grown again today.
As I am also from Ireland, Amy’s story really resonates with me and my own family history and stories. It is wonderful to see and hear about the work she is doing to raise the heritage of Irish linen and to have her at the forefront of the contemporary Irish Linen story making Irish Linen cool, in a very good way. It brings me joy to share her story with you here – and I mean gold linen, who would have thought.
D: Where did you grow up Amy?
A: I grew up in County Tyrone in a place called Dungannon which is about 30 minutes from where I live now. It’s where I spent most of my life. Mum, dad, granny, grandad, all grew up there too.
D: When you were growing up, what would you say your formative influences around fashion were? I have heard you say it’s in your DNA, but can you tell us more?
A: Probably first and foremost, my mum was super into fashion, that was always her thing, putting outfits together. I also have two older sisters who were the same and we all loved getting dressed up. I probably dressed a little older than my years because of my sisters, but I learned a lot from them, which was probably passed down from mum, she has a really good eye for nice things and has a wardrobe full of garments she's had for years and years. Then when I was a teenager, I was able to go up into the attic and raid the clothing from when she was young. So, I have her to thank for that real initial interest in fashion.
On a deeper level when it comes to Kindred and the heart behind my brand, that comes from granny, grandad, my great uncle and great aunt and even my dad, who all worked in the linen mill in Dungannon most of their lives. Dad went on to have his own business, but I grew up around the stories of what it was like for them all working with linen. My great aunt, worked for the likes of Paul Costello, those where the kind of influences I had. My great aunt taught me a few skills with the sewing machine and more. It was a real part of my DNA and that influence, was everywhere I turned. Dad has two gears, he wears tracksuits all week, then on Sunday, he will wear a really well tailored suit from Savile Row he bought 20 years ago as he really appreciates good quality clothing. So, clothing, good fabrics and style are very much a real part of my DNA.
D: Was fashion something you always wanted to study? Educationally were you always interested art? You say your aunt taught you how to make clothes, where you young when you started to make clothes?
A: Yes, I was really young, and I would help her make things like my costumes for nativity plays in primary school. Art was always my thing; in school I didn't really apply myself to the more academic subjects. I was a total daydreamer, I loved English and Art and they were the two subjects where I excelled. In primary school, art class was where I came alive. I would stay behind to do things like paint sets for the nativity. So yes, from a very early age that was my passion. Later I did art for GCSE and A’ level and was always drawn to fashion. But growing up in Northern Ireland it felt like a very far out dream to think that maybe I could do something in the industry. When I was in Uni it felt a bit more achievable because you're older and are inspired by people who started their own labels, but it still felt like a really far out dream and something I probably wouldn’t be able to achieve. My parents never pressured me to pursue something academic or ‘get a real job’ which a lot of my friends have ended up doing and really regret it. After school I took a gap year and worked in an art gallery in Belfast, I then went to California and China with an organisation called Y.W.A.M that allowed me time out to really consider what to do next.
At the time I felt I couldn’t pursue fashion as I couldn’t see how I could make a living from it. I was open to going to London but didn't really want to because I love home and I love Northern Ireland. But it felt like something I had to consider. Taking time out saw me come full circle and allowed me the time to decide to go study and see what opens up, as creative degrees can open a lot of opportunities. During the gap year I applied for the design and fashion course in the University of Ulster, on a whim really, not thinking that I would get in because I wasn't able to get back for the interview, but my portfolio was enough to get me a place.
I really enjoyed the course, it was broken up into different mediums, fashion, weave, knit, print and embroidery. Then in the final year you specialise, fashion with knit was what I focused on, but I'm really thankful now for the really broad knowledge the overall course gave me into how things work, as I have used that broader knowledge, with my brand Kindred.
D: So it was that final year of Uni, brought all the threads of your trip to California and China and your story of Kindred together, did it?
A: It did yes. As I approached my final year, I had to think of a theme or story that my final collection would take. I had researched Irish linen heritage and history but didn't really know exactly what route I was going to take. Also, in final year on fashion courses there is the temptation to create something that's way out there. But my own style and design style has always been wearable everyday pieces and I wanted to continue to create that way.
During my time in China, I had worked with an organisation that worked with women who had escaped from human trafficking and taught them to make jewellery. That also really informed the collection and it’s also informed every part of Kindred as it had a deep impact on me.
At the start of that final year my desire was to create something that could evolve into a brand and my final collection was the gateway to that. I took time at the start of the year to figure out what direction I really wanted to take. It was during that time that I came across a photo that set me on this journey.
As I said earlier my great uncle, worked in the linen industry his whole life and while chatting to him about it, looking for inspiration, he brought out some old photographs and newspaper cuttings, one of them was of my grandmother, who died whenever dad was 5, it was a newspaper cutting of her spinning linen at the Linen Green Mill. Seeing that image had a huge impact on me, because she would have been the same age I was at that point. You know when you see something that does something inside you. That was a real catalyst for me, it felt very personal and it also really honours the Irish heritage history, the textile history and that is what I focused on. That collection was very focused on the story and to highlight it I kept everything really pared down in terms of colour, everything was tones of white. Making the story was as important as the garments themselves. For me this story telling with Kindred is really important, it's also connected to sustainability and people feeling connected to the garments they wear which I think is really important for the future of fashion. Going against the whole fast fashion thing and feeling part of the story, you know where it's coming from, you know, the heart behind it. I believe all of these things are important.
D: Also linen, the fabric you've chosen to work in is one of the most sustainable and environmentally worthwhile fabrics because it grows on poor soil.
A: It grows in poor soil, requires little water and in terms of a sustainable fabric, I think hemp is probably slightly more sustainable, but linen is amazing and it's the oldest fabric historically. Also the thing about linen is the more you wash it, almost the stronger it gets. If you take care of it, there are pieces that will literally last you a lifetime. We French seam everything, we finish everything well, to eliminate any kind of unravelling and all the garments are made with that desire in mind, to be an heirloom that you can keep and pass on. Linen is the best fabric you could use for that, and it is so beautiful on your skin, it's a pleasure to wear. It's also really absorbent and I feel that people don't really realise that.
I don't totally understand the science behind it, but in terms of heat regulation, it actually is a useful fabric to wear in the winter too, because it regulates your body temperature, but most people associate linen with being a summer fabric, and that it has to be really warm outside to wear it. But in reality, I wear it all through the year and if you layer it up it does keep you warm. The beetled linen I use is so warm, it's almost like a bit of a wind trap. So I hope to change that perception.
D: Can you explain the beetling process?
A: I think it goes back to the 1700s, but it's unique to Ireland. It was created here, I've done a little bit of research but can't figure out what the practical purpose of it was. Traditionally the fabric is painted with potato starch, it’s then dampened down, then it’s literally beaten with wooden blocks over days and to create a sheen. The process also totally changes the texture, the weight and how the fabric falls whenever you make clothing from it. It allows me to create pieces that are a little more sculptural and because I only use linen, it's nice to have that variation in texture and shaping. It is created in a mill in the Upperlands in Magherafelt called William Clark, they use a machine that’s been there for hundreds of years, to produce the beetled linen and it's really cool. Also this process is only carried out in that factory, there are no other commercial beetlers worldwide. So, it's really unique to Ireland.
It’s almost like leather. One of my designs is a quilted coat using beetled linen and it's super warm, because there are three layers to it and it almost looks like leather. Vegan leather, you could call it.
D: Truly, that is brilliant.
D: Amy who makes your clothes and where? Do you have a studio?
A: I have a lovely polish woman who is so skilled, and she works from home for me which she loves because she can be flexible with her kids. I think the working from home thing is really interesting because I feel that could really be the future.
D: This is something that did happen in the past too.
A: Totally and it’s been lost in the last couple of generations. My Mum can’t sew anything, but her Mum would have been able to. I've done a little research into things like Irish lace and crochet which I can incorporate into my work. Back in the day that was the original working from home, where women would have done that while taking care of their kids and their husbands would have been out working. This brings it almost full circle and I quite like that correlation, with what I'm doing because of the heritage. I like being able to give seamstresses the opportunity to work from home and be flexible with their kids.
A: One of the biggest problems for me is production, because there is only one factory in Ireland, in Dublin, so the majority of making is freelance. That also becomes a real headache when you're trying to scale up as it's unmanageable. I’m running around chasing garments which takes my attention away, from things like marketing and selling. So, I am working to bring production more in house and creating my own little factory to keep everything more local, which is also better in terms of carbon footprint. I've taken on another seamstress and have one who works in-house in my space in Belfast so there's almost a little factory situation happening, and I am hoping to expand the whole production process, so it will look more like a traditional factory.
D: You will also know first-hand that the people working for you are being treated well, because in a lot of factories people just aren't treated well at all.
A: The more I've immersed myself in the whole process I have realised exactly what it takes to create a garment. So whenever I go into H&M or Zara, it makes me question, how can they sell this really well made blazer or jacket for £50. It's beyond what I can conquer, when you see what goes into making the garments, and they are not awfully made, they're put together quite well, I can see that somebody is literally being paid nothing to create this for fast fashion.
D: True. That's why there is slavery in the supply chain.
A: They're just not paid. Then I read about how little children are missing out on their education because they come to work with their parents. It’s unthinkable.
D: Or they live in the factory.
A: Rana Plaza did shed a bit of light on that, but I feel much more light should be shed on it because if you're aware and are faced with that imagery; this is where what you do as a consumer becomes so important. The feeling when you walk into Zara, even for myself, because the temptation is always there to go get your basics from H&M or wherever. But you walk in, and the feeling is overwhelming, the feeling of the conditions of the people working with their hands for this cheap clothing, there's no way that this sits right with me.
D: When you're aware of it precisely, you feel the anguish of the people making the clothes. If a t-shirt costs less that 20 quid, you know for sure there is pain in that that piece.
A: 100% and you're happy enough to turn a blind eye to it because it's not affecting your everyday. It's awareness isn't it. I feel that if you can put a face to the person who made what you're wearing it changes your outlook.
The Fashion Revolution ‘who made your clothes’ campaign has been such a good campaign I feel that worked so well and the showing the label in your clothes was really good too.
D: Also Orsloa de Castro saying that ‘loved clothes last’ so that people feel good about their clothing and encourages love and care for them. It's all part of the slowing down. As your as your brand name Kindred, implies it’s so much more. It's a more rounded long life, you speak about the longevity of the garments that you buy, you wear, you mend and you cherish.
A: It's actually not a new idea to treasure your garments, I feel that even my mum would say that when she grew up, she would have bought her one summer coat or one winter coat and you mended those and they were passed down. It's only really in my lifetime that this fast fashion thing has accelerated.
D: And its forecast to speed up even more….
A: It’s unthinkable and the people at the top, are earning so much money, it's so selfish, isn't it?
Then of course you have the whole greenwashing side of things, where the likes of H&M claim to have recycled polyester garments but it’s only a marketing ploy, and that's infuriating for me. I feel that there should be new standards around people being allowed to use environmentally friendly marketing terms. I feel they should have to back up what they are saying before they can actually use them.
D: Also a level playing field for people like you, plus tax breaks in place to make sure that you are surviving and thriving as a brand.
A: Absolutely for smaller brands who are actually trying to do it right.
D: What is your mission and your values?
A: The heart behind Kindred: there are quite a few layers to it and as you have noticed even the name Kindred of Ireland encapsulates so many of those aspects. But one of the main hearts behind it is to revive the Irish linen heritage and to breathe new life into traditional skills like beetling, things that have been neglected over the years and also not thought of in a contemporary way. That's the main mission of Kindred, to revive that Irish heritage.
Sustainability is really important, even though it feels like a much harder road. Sometimes I feel that if I just went and got things made in Portugal, for example, it would be much easier. Production wise it's been quite a journey and quite hard to keep everything within Ireland. Of course, in terms of sustainability the best option is to source all of our fabrics here, everything is made here, all our trims and threads all of that, we try to strictly buy all of that in Belfast from smaller businesses. We try to source everything in a really tight radius keeping our carbon emissions low. Sustainability is a really important, part of our story putting to the forefront why we do it and hope that people really engage with it, which they do. Our customers love that that aspect of Kindred especially our North American customers who love and are really engaged with the revival of this Irish heritage.
The whole social justice side of the business was greatly informed by my own experiences in China and California. Whenever I was working with the company in China, the realisation, that creativity can be a real healer for people who have gone through trauma. This is where the brand name Kindred comes in too. I partner with a charity called Flourish and alongside them I've set up Sew & Skill programmes, with the idea of people coming together who have been through really similar circumstances, the whole kindred spirit thing. There is healing in that, sharing stories, being together and doing something creative. In terms of sewing, apparently from a psychological point of view, it's one of the most healing things for the brain, because you're using both hands and using your feet, you're engaging both sides of your brain. There is also the job satisfaction of starting a project and finishing it, and the partnership with Flourish, allows all of those things to come together and has been really incredible. Some of their clients have ended up in Northern Ireland because of awful circumstances, a lot were seamstresses in places like Bulgaria, and elsewhere. However asylum seekers are not allowed to work or be employed so a lot of them are sitting with these incredible skills that legally can’t be used.
D: This is where abuse happens, in that void, because they do have all these skills, coupled with the need to feed their families properly and to thrive, that unscrupulous people take advantage of their situation. Who then get away with paying the people less than the cost of a cup of coffee in Costa or Starbucks per hour because of their fear. Inherently people want to make a good living and to work to make a better life for themselves and their families and if allowed to would be able to contribute properly to society instead of living in this poverty and fear.
A: And that's the thing, one of my big dreams for Kindred would be to work with Flourish and be able to provide employment for people who have come through that. But the problem is, and I have explored all the avenues of how I could pay them in a around about way, but that would actually hinder their application for refugee status if they were caught being paid for anything. So, there's no way around it and it's really unfair. What they get in a week doesn't even cover their bus fares, into the city. It's so unjust.
That side of the business is the longer bigger vision of Kindred, to provide employment. We already hold classes in my studio in Belfast where we bring in Flourish clients, a drop-in service for people who want to come and hang out and have a wee cup of tea. We have held creative workshops with no real end to them but are there for the sake of sitting painting and being creative. It's been really nice to use the space for that. It’s all a huge part of the social justice side of Kindred. We also give 10% of our profits to support Flourish. They are incredible and use their money so well. It really impacts lives directly and again that's all within Northern Ireland so it's all very close.
D: You make your garments to order which I think is brilliant, what was your decision to do that?
A: Initially, it was more because I had limited money to put into the business. It was more manageable in terms of cash flow to get the money for the order then go make the garment. I also didn’t have the resources to buy hundreds of metres of fabric. So, initially it was for practical reasons, but the decision not to change this business model is because it allows us to be really controlled in terms of what we buy and means we're not sitting with loads of stock, which from a sustainability point of view is brilliant because there's no real waste at all, and any fabric we have left over can be made into other things like scrunchies or tote bags. For that reason we try to be smart with how we cut things. Keeping the made to order model allows us to be really sustainable and means we're not sitting with loads of stock to shift. It also feeds into the customer experience of people feeling connected to what they wear, knowing that when they receive something they know it's been made especially for them, which for me is really important and fits in with the whole brand ethos. It also allows for bespoke measurements and adjustments too, should someone like a dress but they want it made longer for example they can request that too. Moving forward we might think about the items that sell consistently like our white shirts and our basics, the core collection, our best sellers and maybe holding a bit of stock, as made to order can hinder sometimes: say for example we get a week of really good weather and we could be capitalising on those sales if we had the basics ready for next day delivery. Usually our orders take 3 to 4 weeks and people don't really respond to the fast turnaround thing so it's getting that balance too. Once we get production sorted, we might look into creating stock of the things that we know will sell well.
D: Yes, that makes sense for hero pieces that are seasonless.
A: There's a shirt that was our very first product, the Cadhla shirt, it’s a simple white shirt with big bloom sleeves, it's one size and really oversized. Which means you're not sitting with loads of different sizes. When we have space in the schedule we will create a batch of those because they sell consistently. The brand is still quite young we are only two and a half years into properly selling clothes and are still learning what sells well and what we can stock up on. But there will always be a made to order element to the brand because I like that.
D: You mentioned the fabric, where do you source your fabric? Is there enough flax grown in Ireland for it to be woven here or is it coming from elsewhere? At the height of production Belfast was known as Linenopolis, I know we grew a lot of flax in Ireland at that time, they say that's why our fields are still so green. But what is the situation now?
A: In terms of flax being grown here, true Irish, linen doesn't really exist anymore. It's technically Irish Linen because the last processes are done here, the weaving, the sewing. I think today its mostly grown in France and the linen that I use, the flax is grown there.
D: Is that in Nates? History says that the Huguenots that came from there to Ireland brought the linen with them.
A: I think it might be, the fabric comes from France and all the finishing processes are done in Ireland. It's not ideal, the dream is to have linen that’s grown here but that hasn't happened in many years. Interestingly there is hope, Charlie and Helen from Mallon Linen have started growing flax again. What they are doing is so cool. They embarked on this journey, some time ago, and they're amazing people. They have a farm in Cookstown and their dream is to go from flax to fabric to create linen again. They're also really into sustainable farming, listening to the cycles of the soil and responding to that. They grow potatoes before they plant the flax and that prepares the soil, it’s all really interesting. Charlie has only recently after, working on it for about two years, rebuilt a scutching machine he salvaged. Skutching is one of the main processes for turning the flax into fibre and recently he got it going for the first time, it’s a massive machine that he has pieced back together. It's a miracle and it's on the farm where they grow the flax. They have even built a shed especially for it, but it's finally going, its functioning and they are able to get the flax through it. The only problem they are facing now is the spinning, which is the next process, and there are no spinners in Ireland. There are hand spinners but in terms of consistent good quality fabric and for scaling up, you can’t hand spin it. So for now, they will send it to France to be spun and then it will come back here to be woven and for all the other all the other finishing processes. But it's really cool what they've done because it's the closest thing to true Irish linen that we've had for years. I'm eagerly waiting for them to get a few metres of fabric so I can make something out of it, hopefully that will be really soon.
D: Your new collection went live at the beginning of March. What was your inspiration for this collection?
A: It's a wee bit more colourful and fun than anything I've done before; the inspiration came from childhood photos and my own childhood memories of summer. Growing up we had a touring caravan and would park it up in Portstewart for the whole summer. The collection is called Nostalgia and there are colourful stripes and pastel colours that make you think of summer. There's a stripe whose inspiration was taken from sweetie bags, another happy childhood memory. So, the collection is fun and a bit of a nod to those times. On the shoot for the collection one of the locations we used was a laundrette because it reminded me of doing the washing with mum in the public laundrette at the caravan park. Although it’s fun putting it all together, it’s also nerve wracking launching something that feels a wee bit different, but people have responded, well to it.
D: When did you open your shop? And has having a physical space made a difference?
A: Up until last summer I was working from home in the main bedroom, Kindred had the biggest bedroom in our house and was beginning to take over the whole house. Then the opportunity came up to take this space in Belfast. Initially having a shop front was never in my short term plan, but it just so happened that the showroom, which is made up of two rooms, meant we were able to have a shop front with a studio out the back. Having that studio space where things can happen, where I can go to work and leave the house has been amazing. The shop front has also been great because we have people who travel up from Dublin and local people coming in. We don't have a huge local customer base, but it’s great for raising brand awareness within Belfast and having a place for people to come in and try things on, getting that customer feedback, when people actually try things on has been really beneficial. Because the brand grew on Instagram initially it was a real moment for me the realisation, these are real people. People were coming in saying “I have followed you for the past couple of years,” it's so nice to have that connection with people in person. Because so much is online now, I think having the physical store is something that people crave. A place where you can come and talk to people has been brilliant and quite inspiring for me in terms of design, hearing what customers like and seeing how things fit on them. All of that has been great. I absolutely love having the space.
D: Finally Amy, what drives you?
A: I am a real values-based person I need to feel that what I am doing is feeding into a bigger purpose. One of my biggest drives is the connexion with Flourish. What I'm aiming towards, what I dream about is the day where I could provide employment, and a really nice working environment for people, that's something that is really important to me, that social justice aspect of it. Recently I have re-connected with the university, because as a student I was once in the position, in Belfast, where I felt I had no opportunities, and a real drive for me, is to one day be able to create jobs and opportunities for the students who are coming out of the fashion degree course. It can be a bit disheartening feeling that you have to leave Northern Ireland to work, when actually it's not the case that all, there is such a creative scene here, so that's a real drive for me too.
I absolutely love making clothes, having people put things on and feel really good about themselves. What I've tried to do from a design point, is create things that are really wearable but feel really special when you put them on. You can wear them literally everyday if you want to with sneakers or equally on special occasions. It makes you feel a certain way, and I think that is so important. That was really highlighted in the pandemic when people were wearing their pyjamas or loungewear all day and how that can affect your mood and your self-esteem. Then how that changes, how you feel really good about yourself when you put something nice on. All of those thing’s drive me, there are so many elements to that, but I would say that the bigger purpose and the bigger picture is what’s most important to me.