From cutting patterns for Levi’s in San Francisco to designing outerwear for Adidas in Germany, before juggling teaching positions at universities across the island of Ireland to fund her start-up handbags, Síofra Caherty has had quite a career in fashion.
Her work experience coupled with the influence of her upbringing in the South Armagh countryside and her passion for sustainability, led this Belfast-based designer to pursue her dream of founding Jump the Hedges, designing and manufacturing bags using salvaged materials, including locally sourced truck tarps. and airplane seat straps.
“I worked in the fashion industry as a commercial designer for about seven years and saw so much waste, and although there is a real push to use organic fabrics and traceable fabrics, there is always a huge overconsumption and overproduction”, Síofra (35) explains.
“The whole concept of a huge sustainable multinational company is a contradiction, because in order for it to maintain its scale and size, it has to produce hundreds of thousands of units a year, which in itself is totally unsustainable.
“Working in these places that were all output oriented and used very linear processes, I decided I wanted to create my own circular process.
“I always had an interest in sustainability growing up.
“We were composting at home, we were living a country life, and at the time I didn’t really know I could apply that to my design work. It was like a separate thing, it was as if environmentalism and fashion were almost sworn enemies.
“I really wanted to start a business that kind of touches on that key interest, which was design but also sustainability, so I decided to give it a try and start my own business.”
While researching what materials to use in his designs, Síofra decided not to use expensive recycled materials.
“When I started, it seemed totally ridiculous to buy very expensive recycled materials from Japan, where the processes were very high-end,” she explains.
“I thought there had to be something around me that was more economical and durable, so that’s how I started using the material I use now, and it just happened. sort of developed from there.
“It was never my intention to use the material I made, it was my way of starting and it got a really good response.
“I was able to develop contacts and source more and it snowballed.”
Síofra incorporates materials from truck tarps and airplane seats into his designs; textiles sourced from all over Ireland, then industrially washed in rainwater.
Each bag is hand cut and sewn on a vintage Japanese Juki sewing machine in a small workshop at the foot of Cave Hill in North Belfast.
“There’s actually a huge industry all over Ireland and especially in Northern Ireland, there’s a lot of stuff made here that we have no idea is made here, from life rafts to car seats. plane – all sorts of things,” says Síofra.
“I end up getting second-hand materials. Many of my airplane straps came from an artist who had a huge box of them in her studio that she got from someone else.
“I always get randomly contacted by people telling me that so and so is clearing out a warehouse, they might have something you’re interested in.
“Most often the material is not suitable.
“I’m at the point now where I’m quite particular. I’ve learned that I also have to value my time, so if it takes me hours to clean something, it’s just wasted time.
“Now I only take things that require minimal cleaning, minimal adjustment, that I can go ahead and start working almost immediately.
“I have developed material contacts all over the island of Ireland. People contact me a lot to offer me different things.
“There is no fixed dispenser for anything because of the nature of the waste, end of roll, end of product, something to empty or something to empty. It is constantly changing, constantly evolving and there is no definite in-between,” says Síofra.
“Truck tarp is my focus now. I’ve used several different fabrics including banner fabric, it’s light PVC but it’s too light.
“The truck tarp is much stronger so you can bend it and turn corners, while the banner fabric cracks in the corners when I tried to make it into a bag structure. I am currently on the hunt for a Liam Connolly yellow tarp, if anyone has one please contact me.
The craftsman has been in business for five years now and the first two or three years were part-time.
“At first I had several jobs to support Jump the Hedges. I worked at Maven on Lisburn Road, Belfast. Afterwards I did workshops and taught part-time at several universities all over the Ireland from Belfast, to try to move my business forward,” says Síofra.
“I had multiple incomes, then Covid came along and they all came to an abrupt end. All my part-time teaching ended, so I had to focus on the bags only. It was about doing one thing well.
“What had happened to me before with Jump the Hedges was that I had taken so many business start-up courses where people were like, ‘You really need to be in the stores, you really need to wholesale – that’s the way to retail, that’s the only way to retail”.
“I really struggled with that, because I made everything myself, and the store margins are huge; they are two and a half or three times the price at which you sell an item. Say you sell something for £20, they’ll sell it for £60, £70 or £80.
“It’s such a huge margin in stores and I just couldn’t do it in order to keep my prices reasonable.
“Because of Covid, people had to go to my website, they were no longer asking, ‘Which stores are you in?’ I got really busy at that time because everyone was shopping online and my website was getting really popular. »
Struggling to keep up with demand, Síofra implemented a ‘bag drop’ system in which she gave herself a period of time to work solely on the design and manufacture of her products, which would then be put into sale on a pre-announced date.
“It takes so long to make a bag that it meant the online store was constantly selling out, which is how the concept of the drops was born,” she says.
“I started working hard on the bags, opening the shop every four to six weeks, then closing it. Now this has evolved into a seasonal process and the drops are selling out fast. The Christmas drop sold out in 30 minutes, and I made one where 100% of the proceeds went to Ukraine that sold out in five minutes.
Last week, Síofra was announced as one of five winners of the annual RDS Craft Awards. She received a cash prize of €10,000 to support the development of her craft and business skills, a free stand at the annual GIFTED – The Contemporary Craft and Design Fair which takes place at RDS each December, and six hours of targeted mentoring with a craft and design professional.
The designer says she was thrilled and shocked by the accolade: “I thought it was a very good reflection on how things evolve in craftsmanship, that the ‘suffering artist’ profile begins to disappear and instead they invest money in people who are commercial and who want to make money with their trade.
“It was quite shocking and I was surprised, because I’m self-employed full time with my business and I don’t have several other things, I thought that was great for me as a individual, but also for the craft sector in general, because it was to make money, because – I talk about it a lot – there is a real narrative around the “suffering artist”, so it was a good opportunity for everyone to see, you can actually make money with a business trade.”
Since 2018, the RDS Craft Awards, in their current form, have awarded €250,000 in support to emerging Irish makers. The awards are based on a scholarship-like model and can be spent on continuing education and training, research, developing new work, mentoring, purchasing equipment, improving studios, websites and residences.
Síofra plans to spend his prize to further develop his skills by taking a three-month course at the world’s leading bag-making school; Scuola del Cuoio in Florence, Italy.
“I hope to take a bag-making course in Italy. Because I have a background in fashion design, I’m self-taught when it comes to bags, and I would just like to do a formal apprenticeship,” she says.
“That would be next year, I have too many this year with projects I’m involved in, and also as part of the prize we’re given a free stand at RDS GIFTED, it’s like a Christmas fair that spans five days. So from now on, I’m going to prepare for that.
The next Jump the Hedges drop will be in June, with four different models selling for between £70 and £270.
“I currently have four products; a fanny pack which is a fanny pack, a stuff sack which is a small kit bag that people use for swim gear, a yoga pouch to carry the mat, and a tote bag,” says Síofra.
“The tote is what elevated the brand and led me to products like the RDS because it’s a much more artisanal product, there’s a huge amount of work in it; they probably represent at least two and a half days of work each.
“It’s more fashion, more luxury really, and tote bags are more the direction I want to go because I like spending time on things rather than being a treadmill of a simple manufacturing process.
“I love spending time working on something and evolving it, and that’s how I see this brand moving forward – with more handcrafted pieces.”
To see Síofra’s collection, visit www.jumpthehedges.com or see @jumpthehedges on Facebook or Instagram.