The enforced confinement of lockdown with schools, offices and hospitality all closed brought many parents and their children more closely together. One surprising outcome of these restrictions was the experience of restaurant critic Katy McGuinness and her daughter Ellie Dunne, both of whom found themselves with time on their hands during this long period, with McGuinness working from home and Dunne’s college course going online. Dunne (22), who has Down syndrome, is an art student doing the portfolio course at Stillorgan College. She has always painted and works from her own studio in a spare bedroom.
To wean their mother away from the distractions of social media, McGuinness’s other children had given her bunches of knitting wool. So she spent her evenings knitting blankets using Ellie’s bold and vibrant abstract designs as inspiration. Friends, on seeing the results, asked about commissioning and suggested she contact Miriam Cushen of Cushendale Woollen Mills in Graiguenamanagh, Co Kilkenny, for help.
With Cushen’s enthusiasm for the project and after several months of meetings and discussions, a limited edition of throws edged in blanket stitch and under the Ellie Dunne Art label went on sale in December. All 50 sold out in a day.
“When you have a disability, you are told you can’t do things – you don’t have the same opportunities [as others] to shine,” says McGuinness. “Ellie has talent and wants to keep studying art – this opportunity has really thrilled her.”
The blankets, handwoven in Irish wool from the fleece of native Galway sheep that is spun, carded, dyed and woven in Cushendale, came in two colourways, moss green and orange. For Cushendale, one of the oldest weaving companies in Ireland, the collaboration “was a bit more meaningful and a learning process for us and for them – it was a journey for all of us,” says Cushen.
But it is not the end of the story. Cushendale, Dunne and McGuinness are now planning another blanket, and new yarn colour samples are already being chosen. For Dunne, it is a remarkable achievement and, as she says, “it has been very exciting to see it happen at different stages – I think my favourite blanket was the orange one”. For her mum, the challenge was understanding the whole process and the technical demands of translating a piece of abstract artwork into warp and weft threads on the loom. “But we have a waiting list now and we are very proud of her”. elliedunneart.com , cushendale.ie