It’s no big leap to say that Liadain Aiken was always meant to knit. That’s not least because her mother spent her hours while pregnant with Liadain constructing a cardigan, but also because – once the cardigan was completed and the future designer emerged – she was surrounded by a family of avid knitters. With a mother, an aunt and a sister all accomplished in the practice, it was natural that Aiken began to knit at a young age, though the mechanics of her learning were more out of consolation than of family tradition.
When her daughter struggled to learn how to cycle, Aiken’s mother did not push. Instead, she presented her with the training wheels of two knitting needles and versed her in a different skill. Confident from the craft she had garnered, she soon conquered life on two wheels. More memorable however was Aiken’s blossoming relationship with wool.
“As a kid, I remember just being obsessed with a particular jumper, just wanting to wear it all the time”. Described as a teal-blue Aran sweater, Aiken says most of her childhood was documented wearing this jumper, with, more often than not, a ketchup stain down the front of it. Many of Aiken’s designs have been inspired by her experiences as a youth. Memories of summers spent in Sligo informed a mini-collection of garments detailed with landscapes, including a dress donning Benbulben.
Though these fond memories inspired her designs, it wasn’t until many years later that they actually came to be. Aiken initially studied Interior Design in DIT, a course which, though isn’t directly related to her current craft, wasn’t without its contributions. “My thesis was on sustainable housing, that’s probably why I didn’t go down that route [and become an interior design]. I didn’t agree with a lot of the materials used in commercial design. None of it sat well with me.”
Sustainability is at the core of Aiken’s label, with an ethos to “embrace slow fashion and make garments to last a lifetime.” She describes her pieces as more craft heirloom products than just clothes. “Heirloom” is an apt description, as Aiken’s credits her ethical beliefs – as well as the knitting bug – as coming from her family. “In my family, we were always mindful, so when I got into dressmaking, that element was always there.”
Already disillusioned with the high street for the quality of its garments and their more than dubious origins, Aiken began to educate herself ethically by attending Re-Dress talks and Better Fashion Week. “My eyes were also opened by Bitter Seeds.” The 2011 film documents the impact genetically modified cotton crops have on farmers in India. “It made me realise the importance of my footprint, the importance of knowing what I’m wearing, who made it, and where it came from. And that’s how I came around to wool.”
Though it is quite a sustainable fabric, Aiken stresses the importance of knowing the origin of the wool she uses. “There are ethical issues that need to be noted within the industry. You hear of awful situations. Farmers breeding sheep with extra rolls of fat so that they produce more wool. Or taking the fleece off at the wrong time of the year leaving the sheep in unnatural conditions. This is why you need to trace your wool. Really know where it is coming from.”
Ethical clothing has crept into the Irish market over the past few years, with homegrown labels such as We Are Islanders and Sophie Rieu paving the way for sartorial sustainability. But still the road is rocky. In a market saturated with H&M and Penneys, can fast fashion really be slowed down?
Aiken believes it can, but her product isn’t about persuading the Topshop troop. “I’m looking for a customer who wants to make a conscious choice. Someone who isn’t about following trends or styles.” Thankfully that customer can be found, both here and in New Zealand, where Aiken’s designs have also been sold. “The feedback has been great from the shop in New Zealand. I spent a lot of time there, so many of my friends already had hats before I started stocking them.” Walking advertisements aside, it seems New Zealand is, in general, very well suited to the brand. “New Zealand is the land of merino wool,” explains Aiken. “And also, their houses aren’t very warm!”
It is the notes of nature in her designs that draw in customers both home and abroad. “I suppose it’s when I see land,” surmises Aiken when asked about her muse. The influence of her surroundings on her work didn’t end with her childhood and the coastline of Sligo however. “It started when I was travelling in Vietnam. The landscapes were unbelievable. I did a few motorbike trips and while going through the countryside I remember wishing I could touch all of it, wishing that I could be a massive giant and just lie across it all.”
Whimsical as it may sound, it has helped spawn her very sellable collections. “I just wanted to turn it all into texture, and so I did.” Reflecting on the label as a whole Aiken says, “I suppose that’s why my work is the way it is – bright and clashing colours mixed with earthy tones. It’s a mix of my love of nature and colour combined.” And what a combination it is, with scenes of natural beauty woven affectionately throughout her work, Liadain Aiken is a label of love.
To see more of and buy Liadain Aiken’s designs, visit liadainaiken.com
Words: Sinéad O’Reilly
Photos: Killian Broderick