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Emily Wynne, Elsa Schiaparelli, and Avoca Handweavers

World-renowned Avoca Handweavers owes much of its signature style to the artistic,  botanical, and entrepeneurial know-how of the Wynne sisters of Wicklow.

The Avoca Handweavers and its connection with Modernism is explored in my article in the winter edition of the Irish Arts Review, December 2018-February 2019. The piece draws extensively from the Wynne family papers held at Trinity College Dublin, generously donated by Patrick Wynne.

Sisters Winifred and Emily Wynne c. 1888. (MS 10247/17/66).

In the 1920s sisters Emily, Winifred and Veronica Wynne took over the running of the Avoca Woollen Mills. Under their direction, with Emily as chief designer, the first steps were taken in transforming a heretofore local business into a now internationally recognised brand. The sisters were part of a cohort of women, frequently single, who found a role and voice in the early years of the State through artistic and craft endeavour, often allied to social ideals. Predominantly Anglican, an ‘established and outsider’ status, with its legacy of socio-economic advantage and social engagement, meant that during a time of flux, they could with relative ease create opportunities for themselves and their practice. Veronica attended Alexandra College, to the forefront in providing education for women. Here prominent artistic and cultural thinkers of the day were invited to speak and networks were nurtured post graduation. 

Dyer Gerry Keogh, 1953 (Courtesy Ivan Pratt)

The sisters created the signature subtle colour lines of Avoca, through utilising an unusual mix of hues. This faculty for colour was shared by Michael Gallagher, a weaver from Donegal whom they employed. Viewing a display of the mill’s produce was likened to ‘entering a Jack Yeats exhibition, except that the more subtle and indefinite colours are too unusual to be produced on any palette.’ In the 1930s the sisters supplied tweed to modernist fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli, Emily travelling to meet the designer at her atlier in Paris. The Wynnes’ story is an important piece of the jigsaw connecting art and craft during this period. They were on familiar terms with artist Mainie Jellett and Muriel Gahan, manager of the Country Shop on 23 St Stephen’s Green. Perhaps it was someone from this circle who passed some of Avoca’s patterns to a friend, who passed them on to someone else in Paris, who showed them to Mme Schiapparelli, thus bring the Avoca Handweavers to the attention of the couturier.   

Hanging newly-woven material on tenter hooks (Courtesy Ivan Pratt).

The Wynne papers in Trinity are of additional interest in documenting the opening up of opportunities for women; an aunt is recorded trying a bicycle for the first time and motor cars are still a thrilling novelty.

Emily, who died in 1958, trained in damask design in Belfast, approaching the mills, to sell her designs. She travelled extensively through the continent, simultaneously developing a lace sale and repair business, which she ran with her mother Alice. Veronica and Winifred obtained posts with the War Office during World War One. Veronica’s responsibilities included translating Sinn Féin correspondence. Towards the end of the War she tried, unsuccessfully, to secure a position in a Horace Plunkett-led Irish administration, through writing propaganda in Gaelic. 

Avoca exhibition at Canaletto Gallery, a barge on the Thames, 1940s (Courtesy Margaret Donovan).

The archives of the Wynne family, some of which is illustrated, demonstrating the family’s artistic bent, are catalogued and available for access in the Library.


Sarah Gillespie





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