Consumers are increasingly aware that what they buy has consequences for the health of the planet. When that awareness merges with manufacturers and makers who use sustainable materials such as wool, then our collective power to implement change grows. One such campaigning designer-maker is Dublin-born Claire McGovern, founder of multi-disciplinary Rhyme Studio. Based in Brooklyn, New York, Rhyme Studio has recently launched Modernity, the studio’s fourth rug collection hand-tufted from Irish wool.
McGovern is dedicated to promoting the ‘durability and sustainability of wool’, particularly Irish wool. Described by The Irish Times as a designer on a ‘pioneering’ wool mission, McGovern is one of a growing number of international makers and manufacturers on the same mission: to raise awareness of the sustainability of sheep wool and to educate consumers away from products (including rugs) made from petroleum-based fibres that end up being burned or in landfill at the end of their short lifecycle. Allied to this mission is a campaign to end the cyclical collapse of the wool market which means a valuable commodity often ends up in landfill due to price collapse that make it too expensive to sheer the sheep.
McGovern’s ‘long-held objective’ to design rugs and tapestries was achieved in 2018 with Rhyme Studio’s first rug collection. The Modernity Collection honours the legacies of 20th century artist Kazimir Malevich known as the inventor of Suprematism—a form of abstract art based on basic geometric shapes, and Irish designer Eileen Gray (1878-1976). The hand-tufted collection has three patterns, Supreme is inspired by Malevich’s Supremus series; Heal incorporates St Brigid’s Cross, and Shine is a tribute to Gray whose given name is derived from the Scots-Irish word meaning ‘shining one’. Wool for the Modernity collection comes from Galway sheep. The fibre is spun at Kerry Woollen Mills and dyed at Cushendale Woollen Mills in Co Kilkenny. The rugs are hand-tufted, beveled and hand carved at a studio in Wicklow to create ‘a 3-dimensional art piece’.
Rhyme Studio’s inaugural and subsequent collections use wool from Irish-based Zwartbles sheep, a non-native breed known for fine to medium (30-32 microns) fleece with ‘excellent crimp’. McGovern is fiercely supportive of Irish wool. Supply-side economists might argue the global collapse (or generally weak prices) of the wool market is a sign it’s time to produce something the world ‘wants’, but the luxury rug industry knows the answer to price collapse isn’t a shift to unsustainable materials, the answer is education. Increasingly the public understands that fast fashion for clothing and the home is unsustainable. ‘Fast’ translates to poor wages for workers and the use of cheap synthetics that shed damaging microfibres and cannot be sustainably recycled. The more designers and manufacturers like Rhyme Studio push the sustainable and ecological qualities of wool, the sooner the public will understand choosing wool is better for both people and planet.
Colm Kenny of Ceadogán Rugs in Co Wexford agrees with McGovern that the Irish wool market is ‘on its knees’, but he sees a positive shift taking place. ‘Irish sheep are generally raised for meat’, he says, ‘and the fleece from these sheep is too short for making yarns that would be suited to our process of hand tufting’. Ceadogán Rugs frequently uses Irish wool for their rugs, but due to issues with supply they supplement with New Zealand wool. ‘Growing awareness’, says Kenny, will eventually lead to greater support for the Irish wool industry and will eliminate the need to source abroad. Similar to the objective of Rhyme Studio, Ceadogán Rugs is on a mission to support Irish wool and reduce their reliance on imported materials.
Rhyme Studio’s 2021 commitment is ‘to donate a % of our sales to helping Irish sheep farmers’. McGovern reiterates her ‘ongoing mission [is] to promote a return to the use of renewable and biodegradable wool fibres’, a commitment everyone in the luxury rug world supports.