All The Nice Girls Love A Sailor (Shirt)

Story of Our Kinsale Shirt

Hark, now hear the sailors cry
smell the sea, and feel the sky
let your soul & spirit fly, into the mystic...
— Van Morrison

Our Kinsale shirt is inspired by the tradition of the sailor suit, but how did the universally recognised sailors apparel, particularly the sailor collar, come about in the first place?

In the beginning, there was no official uniform for seamen, they would have worn their own clothes and being away at sea for so so long, they tended to let their hair grow.  Sailors used grease or tar to hold their long hair in place so that it didn't get in the way as they worked. There wasn't much opportunity for bathing or laundering on a ship, so to protect their clothing from the tar, they wore a piece of cloth over their shoulders which became known as a 'tar flap'.

Eventually, the naval forces formalised the dress code and although sailors were no longer allowed long hair,  the tradition of the tar flap was incorporated into the uniform with the sailor collar that we know today.  Due to the perilousness of the sea, sailors were (and perhaps still are) a superstitious lot and it may have seemed prudent to retain the collar, in spite of it's original function having become obsolete.   Even nowadays, it can be considered good luck to touch the collar of a sailor.

The archetypal dress of a sailor with the flap collar, neckerchief and bell bottom trousers has a singular look, conjuring lively sailors disembarking their ships after months journeying away at sea before returning to shore. There's a romance and mystery to the look of the classic sailor uniform, unlike anything a land-locked civilian might ordinarily wear, evoking the exotic and adventure, an irresistible combination.  

source: Twisted Limbs and Crooked Branches

source: Twisted Limbs and Crooked Branches

source: Authentic French Fashions of the Twenties

source: Authentic French Fashions of the Twenties

There's something inescapably appealing about uniforms in general and the sailor suit has long been referenced in the styling details of clothing for us non sea fairing folk, initially being popularised in the 1800s in women's fashion as well as young boys dress, hence the popularity of the sailor suit for page boys at weddings.

source: Chanel, Couture and Industry

source: Chanel, Couture and Industry

Around 1913, the French designer, Gabrielle Chanel rebelled against the accentuated feminine shape that had long prevailed in women clothing, with it's restrictive corsetry.  The fashion was for women to wear dresses which were boned to create a tiny waist, and an exaggerated bust and hips and inevitably this constrained movement as well as requiring someone to assist with all those fastenings and laces.  

Chanel  designed clothes with a relaxed cut, taking elements from mens clothing, including mens workwear which had a more utilitarian feel and was eminently more practical.  She also utilised fabrics never before thought of as suitable for women clothing; knitted jersey in wool or silk was mostly used for sports and beach wear and in it's natural colour state, for mens undergarments.  During the war, traditional fabrics were in short supply as they were used for uniforms, so it was easy step to persuade people of the necessity of turning to jersey clothing, which helped revolutionised the comfort and practicality of womenswear.

Gabrielle Chanel (above) in 1913 wearing her own clothing designs, of a heavy jersey sweater with sailor style collar and linen skirt.  At the time, it would have been  unusual for a woman's garment to be pulled over the  head and years later, American Vogue commented "To many rich women, the charm of Chanel lay in the remarkable fact that they could dress themselves without anyone's help." 

In more recent times, to mark her engagement at Buckingham Palace, Princess Diana wore a navy ensemble complete with a white sailor collar blouse and red ribbon bow.  It is thought this was a nod to the traditional dress once worn by younger members of the royal family since the times of Queen Victoria and Czar Nicholas.

What we think of as a sailor suit is now mostly worn by junior servicemen and only on ceremonial occasions and has been replaced by a modern boiler suit style uniform for everyday wear.  The traditional uniform with sailor collar designed to protect clothing from tar and the bell bottom trousers, practical for rolling up when scrubbing the ship's decks, has been updated to meet the requirements of modern day life in the Navy. However it lives on, providing inspiration in clothing design, to be reinterpreted and re-configured again and again.

source: Diana, Her Life in Fashion

source: Diana, Her Life in Fashion

Detail of the Kinsale shirt in pure cotton with carved mother-of-pearl buttons

Detail of the Kinsale shirt in pure cotton with carved mother-of-pearl buttons

Our Kinsale Shirt borrows the sailor collar from the traditional naval uniform as well as referencing the twenties, when women's clothing became more androgynous, adapting the fit to suit a contemporary femininity.  This version with three quarter length sleeves is in a beautiful, fine cotton jacquard of elephant grey with brick red and ochre patterned stripes.

Fast Fashion and the Myth of Greater Choice

'Fast Fashion is sold to us as expansion of choice.' - Oma


Every week on the high street, there will be a new display of garments to browse, new styles and colours. Not only that, but if we don't buy that top we can't live without, we can be pretty sure it'll be gone by tomorrow. Best to get it now whilst it's still there, it can always be returned if we change our mind – it can, but will we be bothered? And as it is so cheap, why not get that other little top that's reduced, too? And now we have two cheap tops which we may or may not wear, but it's not as if they cost much, I mean they were practically 'for nothing'. Then repeat and repeat, never spending much, but somehow not seeing how these routine spending sprees actually add up to a bit more that we thought we were spending. But we fell in love with them and they bring a dopamine rush which feels lovely. How long does that feeling last? How long do the tops last? How long do we love those tops and is it ok to fall out of love as quickly as we fell in? Buying frequently makes it hard to love everything deeply.


What if we were to buy occasionally, to spend time considering the place a garment would have in our wardrobe, the value it might have in terms of number of wears and the sheer pleasure we get from wearing it again and again. We have been educated out of thinking that way about our clothes, out of thinking of things as made to last – after all that isn't congruent with practicing mass consumption. Just consider how many items we get through daily that are actually designed as single use items – from food packaging , to face wipes and take out coffee cups. We've been encourage to think about clothing in this way, too, that it's ok to get just the one wear from something, or even no wears. What happens to all these hardly worn garments is for another blog post, but what if we purchase fewer items less often, make thoughtful and considered choices and look after through careful laundering and repair? This is how older generations regarded clothing, as something that should last, that should be worn until it wore out.

In a world of instant gratification, is boredom to blame for our need for a fast fashion fix? In fact, which came first, the constantly changing availability of variety or the need for instant gratification? Either way, if you truly love something, do you get bored of it? Or do you take care of it, cherish it, wear it to bring you luck and grieve for it once the day finally comes and you have to admit it's time to part. The chances are that will only happen if the garment was of good quality design, construction and materials at the start. Without these characteristics, it is unlikely a garment will last very long whether you love it or not.

It was Vivienne Westwood who coined the much quoted phrase 'Choose Well, Buy Less, Make It Last' and I read a blog post recently where the writer had decided to radically change the way he purchased clothes. Based on a monthly spend of approximately $150 per month, rather than select multiple cheaper fast fashion items, he would choose one really good piece, that he would take time to consider before committing himself.  One thing about higher priced items is they tend not to sell out so fast. At first, he said it actually hurt to spend so much on a single item, not to mention resisting the temptation offered by cheap fast fashion, but in time he realised how much more he appreciated the superior quality and design of the new clothes and ultimately he liked them better.

In food, we have become interested in where our food is from and who made it. The rise in attendance at Farmers Markets by producers and customers alike is testament to this and means that through buying locally, we may even know who made it as well as where it was grown or made. What is it about this that makes us want to invest and return regularly for more? We enjoy buying locally from small producers and we like buying from people we know. We choose quality and knowledge over the supposed greater variety and cheaper prices at the supermarket. However, there's no point having more options and being able to pay less if it's not the food we want to eat.

It's no secret that Fast Fashion is not made to last and if it did it might be harder to justify throwing it out. We actually expect the seams to unravel and fastenings to fall off or it not to survive going through the washing machine.

Detail from a handmade, slow fashion dress

Detail from a handmade, slow fashion dress

 We have no idea who made our clothes apart from what the label tells us is the country of origin. This will only state the final place of assembly and be far from the whole picture. All consumption is going too fast and the environmental impact of single use items in landfill is increasingly under the spotlight, but it seems particularly wrong to treat clothing as a single use items.

Fast Fashion is presented to us as providing greater variety, but I'm far from convinced it's a choice we need and it rarely rewards our soul with lasting beauty and pleasure. It's a mind shift, just as what happened in the Slow Food movement; we can learn about what makes a better garment from the fabrics, to the design and construction. And we may understand that spending more on fewer clothes may go against what we've been taught in recent years, but will be more satisfying in the long term. By finding out more about the story behind our clothes, where they were made and who made them, we might just start falling in love with (fewer of) them and value their provenance and integrity as well as how we express ourselves through them.


Back Stage At DesignedBy Runway Show

DesignedBy was one of the many innovative events taking place to celebrate and promote local design in Northern Ireland's first city, Belfast.  Staged at The MAC, Belfast's contemporary arts centre, DesignedBy was a curated exhibition of clothing and accessory designers by fashion stylist and journalist, Jessica Fok.  Jessica was keen to put on a fashion show that focused on design rather than trends and Belfast Design Week was the perfect fit.  

We were invited to participate in DesignedBy to show what sustainably designed clothing looks like and were delighted to show alongside Northern Irish designers including Attune Womenswear and Marie Claire Ferguson.


Northern Ireland's pre-eminent Arts Centre is always buzzing and there's always lots happening, so The MAC proved to be the perfect venue for the DesignedBy runway show.  


Back stage, the designers fitted each of their looks to one of the models from the Maureen Martin Model Management. The Charleville Dress is ready to debut... 


Runway models were attended to by hair and beauty designed by Hair Artist Kelly White and Chief Make-up Designer Joanne Gray.


Models backstage awaiting their moment to walk:  Ella wears All Seasons Dress in indigo Irish linen and Lauren is dressed in the cotton Kinsale Shirt.  We partnered with CrossEyes spectacle specialists, whose retro styles perfectly complimented our sustainable clothing.    


A favourite image of Vuitton wearing the Gabriel skirt in wool tweed and side buttoned top in Irish linen.  Curator and organiser, Jessica Fok ensures the schedule is seamless.

Linen As An Ethical Fabric

How much do we know about the fabric our clothes are made of and it's environmental impact? Looking at the labels in our clothes will tell us whether they are made of natural fibres like cotton or wool or from synthetic fabrics derived from petrochemicals, such as nylon and polyester. There are various aspects to consider when understanding how ethical a fabric is, including the use of pesticides and fertilizers, water consumption and the pollution caused by treatments such as dying and printing the fabric. Fabrics made from petrochemicals are highly polluting and the production of these fabrics is a named cause of global warming; nitrous oxide is release during the manufacture of nylon and is a known powerful greenhouse gas. In addition they are non-biodegradable which means they don't break down easily and remain in landfill for centuries after they've been dumped.

Irish Linen

Linen is one of the worlds oldest fabrics, dating back to 8000BC and the antithesis of nylon, polyester and other synthetics. It is believed that the flax plant, from which linen is made, was grown in Ireland as far back as 1000BC and there is certainly evidence that Irish linen clothing existed 2000 years ago. Linen clothing must have been widely worn by the population of Ireland in the 16th Century as Henry VIII wrote to the town of Galway telling them to cease using excess amounts in their shirts and smocks and the limit was set at 7 yards per garment. However, the decree was mostly ignored and up to 30 yards of linen was often incorporated and was very likely a necessary means to keeping warm in the damp Irish climate (although 30 yards seems like a huge amount for one smock).

Irish Linen

Up to the early 1800's, Ireland was self -sufficient in growing flax for linen, but good cultivation practices were neglected and the quality suffered. Supplies of superior flax became available from Europe after the ending of the Napoleonic Wars and flax began to be imported from Belgium and Germany from this time. During the 20th Century, the arrival of man made fabrics caused linen to be regarded as old fashioned and demand for linen clothing fell. It was only at the latter part of the century that interest was revived in natural fibre fabrics and Irish Linen's unique quality appreciated. Nowadays, the term Irish Linen refers to fabric that has been woven or knitted in Ireland and contemporary Irish Linen is acknowledge worldwide as being of the highest quality

Irish Linen

Irish linen isn't certified organic, but it's ethical credentials are good. The flax used is brought in from France, Belgium and the Netherlands, which means the workers and the environment are protected by EU laws regarding working conditions, pay and ecological impact. And the carbon footprint is low compared to importing the raw material from countries on the other side of the world. The cultivation of flax uses much less water and fewer pesticides than cotton. After harvesting, the crop is laid out in fields to 'ret' allowing the linen fibres to naturally separate, the seeds are removed and used for cattle cake or linseed oil and the bark is used for chipboard - no part of the flax plant is wasted.  These are welcome practices for sustainability.

The fibres in linen fabric are very strong making it highly resistant to tearing and it's stability as a fabric means that garments retain their shape and don't shrink. The reason linen is so popular in summer is that it's light and cool to wear and conveniently absorbs perspiration, but there's no reason why it shouldn't be worn all year round. Linen clothes are easy to launder and will withstand numerous washes as the fabric actually becomes stronger when wet. If correctly looked after, linen clothing has the potential to last a very long time, which combined with coming from a renewable resource and being biodegradable, makes it an ultimate sustainable fabric.

A characteristic of linen is that it creases easily, although new technology is developing different finishes which are 'easier' to care for. The wrinkles identify linen as linen and you either love the look or you don't. I was brought up to think that creases were undesirable and fabrics that creased should be avoided or repeatedly ironed - perhaps the result of how the 'new' synthetic fabrics were marketed, back in the day. However, I've come to love the creases in linen; when you first put on a freshly laundered linen garment it's crisp and a little stiff. After an hour, the first creases stand out like lone footprints in the sand. By the end of the day, the garment has softened, draping in a way that only linen does with tiny, multiple creases that crisscross, reflecting the life lived that day. Of course, polyester doesn't crease and never needs ironing, but where is the sense of history and charm in that?

Irish Linen is durable, but it's durability is meaningless unless we rethink our attitude to clothes shopping and how we regard our clothes. The number of clothes that we buy has increased massively in recent decades. Clothes shopping has evolved so that buying as many items for as little as possible has become something to boast about. The reality is that we've been persuaded by clothing brands and the media that this buying habit is a good thing, something to be commended, but the reality is that it's not right; in so many ways, it's really not ok. We need to begin valuing each individual garment in our wardrobe, starting by choosing something that we truly love wearing, then taking care of how we launder and maintain it when it needs repairing. It is a different way of thinking about the clothes we own and Irish Linen, with it's heritage and elegance, should merit a place.