Foxford Woollen Mills back in fashion again

At Foxford an old industry has become a major tourist attraction, and as Tom Kennedy reports, sales of rugs and blankets to visitors is boosting the home market.

In 1892 with borrowed money, practical advice from a Protestant Freemason, and her own unshakable faith in divine providence, Agnes Morrogh Bernard created the Foxford Woollen Mills. Her idea was simple, by meeting Divine Providence half way she could help people to help themselves. Where others had only found no end of poverty this dynamic Sister of Mercy always managed to see a bountiful supply of natural opportunities.

Originally Irish wool was used at Foxford and shearing of sheep by the Moy was a common sight. However local wool, apart requiring an environmentallydemanding scouring process, is tough and only suitable for rough cloth. Sheep in Italy, France, the UK and Australia are specially bred for their wool.
The fast flowing River Moy was tapped for power, the Congested Districts Board, impressed by the nuns managerial skills gave a substantial grant to capitalise the industry and local weaving skills were put to work. Within a few years trust in providence had paid off; the rugs and blankets from Foxford not alone gained in reputation, but they began to produce a real profit.

The reputation gained at Foxford has never diminished, but the mills as a business, eventually declined. Having survived for longer than most companies, Foxford's Providence Mills ran out of money in 1987 and 85 people came back from their summer holidays to find the receiver in possession.

For Foxford, a small town where almost everybody depended on the mills, this was a disaster, and for the entire region it was a crushing blow to confidence. As Frank Devaney, who had been in charge of dyeing, remarked, good jobs, which had been secure for generations, were suddently gone. It was as if Foxford had lost part of its identity

The receiver, Rory Quinn, had no problem identifying the fatal weaknesses; a slump in the market, overmanning, and massive premises which were costing a fortune to maintain.

Permanent closure seemed inevitable, but while most people took this gloomy view, Joe Queenan, who worked as an accountant for the receiver, saw a glimmer of hope. As he realised, no one had ever questioned the high quality of the products, and he saw little sense in selling off machinery when the skills to use them to advantage were still in place.

Like everyone else from the area, Joe, who grew up under the shadow of Nephin, knew the history, and apart from doing his sums, he had had absorbed some of the spirit that Agnes, as Sister Arsenius, had passed on to the place.

This positive atmosphere, said Joe, tipped the balance in deciding to make a bid for the mill. About a quarter of a million pounds was needed so a Business Expansion Scheme (BES) was launched. Tom O'Mahony, who runs Wexford Textiles, was glad to give his support, a double benefit because he had an insiders knowledge of how the industry works. David McGee, an investment manager, also took an interest, and these two remain as directors.

Joe began to get the business organised, but money was tight. With personal guarantees, the financial risks for Joe were extremely high. Amazingly, some of the rules designed to protect the unemployed became yet another barrier to be overcome. Production had not yet started, and samples were urgently required as orders could not be won without them. However no one could risk losing long term unemployment benefits for the sake of a just a few days work. A major trade show was due to start in Paris, Joe planned to be there, yet the looms remained silent. Rory O'Connor at the Enterprise Ireland office in Galway heard about the dilemma, thought it absurd, and after a few phone calls the problem was resolved.

With orders coming in, some of the former employees were able to return to work.

Joe was not the only one to trust in providence. By overcoming almost impossible odds Sister Arsenius, who remained a formidable figure until her death in 1932, lived on as a legend, and the mill had almost become her monument. The local development group realised that they had inherited an opportunity to develop a visitor centre Joe, with his weaving shed and shop surrounded by empty buildings, welcomed the idea. Not alone would it solve a problem of what to do with all the covered space, but it would attract more customers for the shop. The shop, explained Joe, had always been the lifeline which had kept the mill afloat. The shop on its own was viable, and without it the mill would have been long gone beyond recovery.

For a nominal rent, Frank Devaney and the local development group took over the mill buildings, and a symbotic relationship between manufacturing and tourism began. As Joe and his small band of weavers concentrated on reviving the manufacturing operation, the local development group made ambitious plans for a visitor centre. Using European regional funds a multimedia presentation about the mill and its history was prepared. Although the presentation, incorporating slide dissolves, a talking model of Sister Arsenius, and a tour of the working mill went on to win international awards, getting Foxford onto the tourist trail was not easy Like Joe and the weaving, Frank Devaney remembers how hard it had been to convince everyone that the visitor project had real merit. He recalls laying out the plans before tourism officials in Dublin. Afterwards he wondered if the team from Mayo had made any impression at all, but eventually, after opening in 1990, the tour buses began to arrive. Last year, said Frank, the Mill clocked up 70,000 visitors and Foxford has become one of the most important tourist destinations in Mayo.

The shop, with its big selection of rugs, blankets and expanding range of related items, has become part of the attraction. The expected boost to business has been greater than expected, and the Foxford connection enabled Joe to open two more retail outlets, Westport in 1994, and Moygashel, Dungannon in 2000. All three shops, bearing the Foxford brand, have become important outlets for high quality crafts, clothes, rugs and blankets. The shops are thriving, and as Joe observed, home sales have provided the business with a firm foundation.

Some of the original looms are still in use, others have been upgraded or replaced by faster computer controlled machines. Larry Murray, one of the first weavers to return said most of the old machines are still very reliable. Whenever they break down, it is generally something simple which can be repaired locally, or the parts can be replaced easily.

Upgrading the machines was one aspect of reviving the mill, bringing designs up to date was probably more important. A rug is no longer just for comfort, explained Joe, it is now a fashion accessory. Helen McAlindan, well known as a designer, was brought in to introduce new patterns, brighter colours and softer finishes. Her bold open square patterns have become an enormous success, and a fluffy mohair range was started. Giving customers what they were looking for resulted in a huge increase in sales. For some blankets sales have increased by a factor of five, so Joe, understandably has become a dedicated follower of fashion.

Natural fabrics have become the height of fashion, and the fact that woollens are now seen as a desirable accessory has led to opportunities which would not have been considered before. In furnishing, for example, explained Joe, woollens have significant advantages. Woollens come way ahead of alternatives in complying with stringent fire regulations, and with relatively fewer strands to weave can be manufactured at less cost than other furnishing fabrics.

Ten years had gone by before Joe could feel secure enough to get down to longer term planning. At first, he said, all his energy went into dealing with emergencies, but now he can plan ahead with confidence that the Foxford brand is secure and can only go on from strength to strength.

Even with the shop, weaving shed, stores and visitor centre, Belasa Weavers is still left holding onto an enormous area of covered space. Two or three years ago Joe would have been glad to let most of this space go. Since then he has revised his requirements. Some of the space is going to be needed for expansion.

Courtesy of The Western People 2002