Cistercian monks who established a woollen mill alongside their monastery in Graignamanagh in the year 1204 could never have predicted that in the year 2021 a mill on the same site would be producing beautiful, high quality textiles.
The mill was already almost 600 years in existence when it came into the stewardship of the Cushen family - and today the Cushens are marking the involvement of six generations of their family with the mill.
Cushendale Woollen Mills is one of only two traditional wool mills still operating commercially in Ireland. It is a real blend of the ancient skills of wool milling and blanket weaving with a modern family business, reaching out to bring their wares to the wider world.
The Covid lockdown was probably not the first ‘pandemic’ the mill has seen in its long existence, but this one presented an opportunity for the Cushen family to look inward and develop the business for a new generation.
Miriam Cushen is the sixth generation of her family to run the business, with her husband Trevor Ging. They are working closely with her parents Philip and Mary as the business transitions to having its first woman at the helm.
Above: Mary and Philip Cushen
Sylvester Cushon (the spelling of the family name has changed over the centuries) was the first of the family to run the woollen mill - in 1778. His son Patrick, born in 1824, took over from him, before handing on the business to his son, Philip (born 1859). Another Patrick (born1899) handed the mill down to another Philip - Miriam’s father.
Philip collaborated with the Kilkenny Design Workshops in the 1960s and brought new designs, colours and fibres into the business.
The recent developments by Miriam and Trevor have echoed this - developing new and bold product ranges while still appealing to traditional tastes. They have also taken advantage of lockdown to expand the small front-of-mill shop space and they have created a beautiful, spacious new showroom that perfectly displays their products.
Watching Philip Cushen operate the mill apparatus that dates from 1890 visitors to the business were transported back in time, when they gathered to celebrate the business.
Cushendale Woollen Mill is one of only two ‘vertical mills’ in the country, meaning they collect fleece and transform it into textiles under the one roof.
Over the past 12 months a lot of work has been done, Miriam said at the relaunch celebration. She thanked builder John Burke, who ‘almost moved in at one stage, he was here day and night’ in the space that didn’t have an even wall or floor! Eric Phillips, from Bennettsbridge, creates fine furniture and woodwork, and he crafted the ‘beautiful furniture’ for the new showroom. “His craftmanship is immaculate and showcases our products,” Miriam said.
In developing the space and designs Miriam worked with brand team Aad from Dublin. They understood the business and “really helped us to represent what we are,” Miriam said.
The business is run by a family, but those that work in the mill are like a family too, Miriam said, thanking “the team we have here making the amazing textiles” - Jim, Thomas, Dorota, Sarah and Kathleen. “We are privileged to do what we do and we couldn’t do it without the team.”
Miriam had a special word for her parents Philip and Mary. Without their tenacity and resilience over the years, and the people before them, Miriam acknowledged she wouldn’t be able to stand in the showroom as the sixth generation of the Cushen family to lead the business. She also thanked her husband, Trevor, who retired from the army and is now found ‘front of house’ at the mill and, she said, they have never sold as many blankets!
Above: Cushen family - Miriam and her husband Trevor Ging, parents Mary and Philip - with the Cushendale Woollen Mills staff. All PICTURES: Vicky Comerford
Guest of honour, on the day, was retail consultant Eddie Shanahan. His encouragement, support and positivity, along with numerous Zoom calls over lockdown, pushed them forward to pursue the new developments, Miriam said.
“Being a small part of this wonderful project means a lot to me,” Mr Shanahan said. He said positivity and passion can achieve so much and that had combined with the dedication of one very special local family who are taking the skills of the past and presenting them in today’s marketplace.
After working with himself and the Aad brand team Cushendale Woollen Mills is now presenting a fresh, blended image with new designs, a new website, a new shop and mill experience that will draw more people to Graignamanagh, he said.
Mr Shanahan had special words of admiration for Philip and Mary Cushen, who, he said, kept Cushendale ‘on track’ through the decades when so many big names disappeared from the marketplace.
Mairead O’Dwyer, from Kilkenny Tourism, said it was a phenomenal achievement to keep a business going for six generations.
Kilkenny has recently been named as a World Crafts Council Craft City and Region and Cushendale Woolen Mills has made a major contribution to this, she said. There’s nothing visitors appreciate more than getting out into the country and they love to meet the makers of the crafts.
Remarking on the vibrancy of the colours of the blankets, dyed on-site, Ms O’Dwyer said Cushendale Woollen Mills would be recommended to visitors to Kilkenny, along with all the attractions in Graignamanagh.
You can check out Cushendale Woollen Mills on https://cushendale.ie/
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