by Áine Ní Shionnaigh
Growing up in the 1970s in the West of Ireland, a day confined to bed, thankfully, was a rare occurrence. Nevertheless memories of fingering the fuzzy fringes of my Foxford woollen blanket to pass the time of an eternal day come to mind. The iconic Foxford cream blanket, with blue or pink contrast, adorned every bed in Ireland and was traditionally passed down through families, it’s breathable warmth insulating generations from the omnipresent dampness. Recently I had reason to finger through the same fringes when I visited the Foxford Woollen Mills in Foxford, Co. Mayo. As I found out, the plain cream blanket is now available in a riot of colors, hues and textures, and, interestingly, Foxford is not just all about the blankets anymore.
Foxford Woollen Mills produces some of the world’s finest weaves, using traditions passed down through generations. A team of master craftsmen work in a fully working textile mill that has survived for well over one hundred years. It is one of the last working mills in Ireland, having survived economic downturns, movement of competitor manufacturing to the Far East, multinational stores, and, most importantly the revolution in bedding choice. Duvets are now ubiquitous in Irish bedrooms. The wool blanket had almost been replaced, that is until Foxford realized there were other ways to use a blanket type of product.
Foxford has become a brand which is about creating a look which is sophisticated in its simplicity, assimilating a clean and contemporary style into a traditional core product. The web site has been redesigned to reflect this: www.foxfordwoollenmills.com Foxford is evolving into a lifestyle brand comprising a collection of Irish made furniture upholstered with custom made Foxford fabrics. Add to this, a stunning bedlinen collection of blankets and throws woven from the softest merino/cashmere/lambswool and sheeting in 100% combed cotton. Everything is designed to co-ordinate or comfortably contrast. Foxford has duly established a reputation for luxurious throws which look equally attractive displayed on a sofa or a bed.
Foxford Woollen Mills celebrate their strong sense of place which can be seen in the way the different collections reflect the West of Ireland and Mayo landscapes. One example is the Moy range which is inspired by the River Moy, which runs underneath the mill. It contains muted mossy greens and earthy tones, soft watery blues with an occasional flash of kingfisher blue.
In 1892, in the aftermath of the Great Hunger and the Land War, hunger, poverty and desolation were endemic in the area around Foxford. It was in this context that Agnes Morrogh-Bernard, a member of the Irish Sisters of Charity (Sister Arsenius), achieved what many thought was impossible. She was a pioneering and visionary woman who, in a male dominated society, managed to establish the Foxford Woollen Mills. Sister Arsenius managed to combine her decision to follow a spiritual path and being of service to the poor with her astonishing capacity for strength and the determination to accomplish great things for others. A woman way ahead of her time, she secured an angel investor which was a key to the initial start of the mill. She was also the first to initiate cross border participation. She looked at what Foxford had, which was a source of power in the local river Moy which ran through the town and the unlimited natural resource of sheep wool from the mountainous farms surrounding the town. She enlisted the help of the local landlords who up to then had no rental income from their impoverished tenants.
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The onsite restaurant with the Foxford philosophy of “Simple, seasonal food, done well” was a delight, bursting with delicious home baked goods. Sitting at the original foreman’s desk, framed with the original labelled filing cabinets, I drifted back in time whilst sipping a latte and scoffing warm homemade scones dripping in local butter and preserves, all made on site.
Adorning the walls amongst local artwork is a smiling portrait of Sister Arsenius. I say a silent prayer thanking God for her enterprising spirit and for that of the current Managing Director, Joe Queenan, who took over the helm after helping the mill to survive receivership in 1987. Thanks to him and his team, Foxford Woollen Mills is back bigger and brighter than ever and is currently exporting to four continents and provides employment to approximately 60 people. I highly recommend a visit to Foxford Woollen Mills and, until you can do so, perhaps purchase one of their uber soft wool throws to add color and warmth to your life.