Irish Linen House: A modern family business with traditional roots

Irish Linen House was founded in 2011 by Greg and Mary Whelan. Greg’s background in the fashion industry means that he is key to the design and production of the brand’s beautiful range of table linen. If Greg is the creative lead, then Mary is the business mind of the operation and handles the day-to-day running of Irish Linen House which is based in Bow Street in Dublin's Smithfield.

Greg and Mary’s daughter Marie-Claire recently joined her parents in the family business. With a background in marketing and PR for luxury brands across the beauty, fashion and drinks sectors, Marie-Claire is currently working with her parents on creative direction and e-commerce and on developing the brand’s digital presence online.

Irish Linen House table linen collections are available from the company shop on Bow Street as well as from stockists nationwide including several of the Kilkenny shops, House of Ireland, the Trinity College gift shop and Ashford Castle.

Here we speak to co-founder Mary Whelan about the origin of the business, new product ranges and the company's key moments of success in business to date.

Photo of Irish Linen House: A modern family business with traditional roots

What makes your products stand out?

Irish Linen House is a family-run brand creating tableware that is hand-crafted from the finest sustainable Irish linen and telling stories through intricately embroidered designs. The collection comprises of three carefully crafted ranges: our “Signature”, “Wild” and “Fusion” collections which include tablerunners, placemats, napkins and home accessories.

Our creations celebrate our Irish roots fusing a contemporary design aesthetic with a traditional textile and craftsmanship. Using the finest Irish linen, old stories come alive through our designs which are hand-drawn and inspired by Ireland’s natural beauty, rich culture and heritage. Our pieces are carefully crafted to be both elegant and functional. The linen is machine washable and wearable so it will age beautifully and last for years.

Photo of Irish Linen House: A modern family business with traditional roots

What processes are involved in the creation of your table linen?

Our design approach and process draw from our promise of producing table linen that is thoughtfully designed and handmade. We are proud to say that our products are made in Ireland at our Dublin studio on Bow Street in Smithfield.

Time, care and skill go into each and every piece that we create. We source the highest quality linen from Ireland’s best weavers - producers that have refined their craft and skill through many generations over the last 160 years. When it comes to design, we carefully consider the functionality of our pieces to ensure that they stand the test of time.

What inspires your designs at Irish Linen House?

Our vision is to enhance homes and dining occasions by providing a beautiful setting of distinctly Irish linen. Our creations celebrate our Irish roots by fusing a contemporary design aesthetic with a traditional textile and craftsmanship. Greg was always particularly drawn to Celtic-inspired art and mythology which he has sketched and refined over time. Greg’s appreciation for Ireland’s natural beauty, rich culture and design heritage have inspired the brand’s aesthetic.

Photo of Irish Linen House: A modern family business with traditional roots

You started your business during the recession - what challenges have you have encountered in business?

We started the business in 2011, amid the recession. With a very niche product offering, it was a challenging time to start a new business. However, we maintained our vision of producing thoughtfully-designed, quality and handmade products. We believed in our brand, we were passionate about our products, and most importantly, we persevered as we knew it would take time. We had a couple of small wins early on which encouraged us to keep going, and from there, we continued to grow and new opportunities came our way.

As a small team of three, we have found it challenging to manage all aspects of the business as we grow. We design and make everything ourselves, so the work is labour-intensive, and with growing demand, a lot of our time is focused on production, logistics and managing the shop. This leaves us with less time to focus on other elements which are equally as important.

In the last couple of years, we have seen the impact of the digital revolution, the importance of having an online presence and keeping up with the latest innovations in technology. There are more ways than ever to promote your business and, while it's exciting, it is time-consuming and a big investment. It’s also not an area we had previous experience with, so just recently, our daughter joined us to manage this side of the business.

Running a small business always comes with certain challenges. Both myself and Greg came from entrepreneurial families which encouraged us to see challenges as opportunities - you grow and learn by facing and overcoming them.

Photo of Irish Linen House: A modern family business with traditional roots

What have been the most positive turning points for the brand so far?

As a small team of three, we are proud to see our company continue to grow. Each year brings new opportunities.

A couple of years after we launched our business, we worked with Barneys New York to create an exclusive range of Irish linen. Linen tableware is very popular in the US so the market is very competitive. Seeing our products on the shelves in such a high-end department store in New York City was a very big moment for us. This experience encouraged us to explore the US market further as we saw a great demand for Irish linen in particular.

Another turning point was in 2016 when we were commissioned to create our interpretation of Irish masterpiece, and the world’s most famous medieval manuscript, the Book of Kells. We designed a large nine-piece embroidered linen collection featuring over 2.2 million stitches, inspired by the illuminations in the Book of Kells. The framed pieces with rich and intricate Celtic designs now hang proudly on the walls of Trinity College.

Alongside the commissioned piece, we also designed an exclusive range of table runners, placemats, napkins and wall art which are now sold in the Trinity College gift shop on campus in Dublin city centre and in our shop. This was an incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us, and one we will always be very proud of.

That same year, we also bought our business premises where have our studio, and we opened our shop - a major turning point for us. The shop attracts customers every day from all around the world who love to see our studio and experience the work, creativity and craft first-hand. To have the opportunity to meet our customers face-to-face, tell them our story and show them our work is one of the best parts of our day-to-day business.

Photo of Irish Linen House: A modern family business with traditional roots

Do you have a mentor?

When we first started out we had a mentor, Agnes Doyle, from the Fingal Enterprise Board who was incredibly helpful. She instantly understood our product and believed in us which encouraged us to go for it. Fingal Enterprise Board, The Design & Crafts Council of Ireland and Design Ireland have provided us with extensive support and guidance every step of the way for which we are extremely grateful.

Tell us about your latest products?

Our latest collection, “Wild”, is inspired by the untamed beauty of the Wild Atlantic Way. The abstract designs depict the essence of the Irish sea, wildflowers and the rugged coastline in deep navy and blue hues, as well as soft pastel pinks and cream.

For the first time, we have introduced coloured linen into our collection, coupled with more contemporary designs, and, so far, the reaction has been fantastic. It has opened up a new avenue for us and we’re excited to develop and experiment with this further.

It’s also an exciting time for linen with such a huge focus on sustainability and a desire for sustainable design. Linen is an amazing fabric to work with and we’re already seeing a greater demand for it.

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