From pattern cutting for Levi’s in San Francisco to designing outdoor clothing for Adidas in Germany, before juggling teaching posts in universities across the island of Ireland to finance her handbag start-up, Síofra Caherty has had quite the fashion career.
er 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 making bags using reclaimed materials including locally-sourced truck tarpaulin and aeroplane seat straps.
“I worked in the fashion industry as a commercial designer for about seven years and I saw so much waste, and as much as there’s a real push to use organic fabrics and traceable fabrics, there’s still a huge overconsumption and over manufacturing,” Síofra (35) explains.
“The whole concept of a huge multinational business being sustainable is a contradiction, because in order for them to maintain their scale and their size, they have to produce hundreds of thousands of units per year, so that in itself is totally unsustainable.
“Working in these places that were all about the output and that used very linear processes, I decided that I wanted to create my own circular process.
“I had always had an interest in sustainability inherently growing up.
“We did composting at home, we very much lived a country life, and back then I never really knew that I could apply this to my design work. It felt like a separate thing, it felt like environmentalism and fashion were arch enemies almost.
“I really wanted to create a business that sort of hit this key interest, which was design but also sustainability, so I decided to try it and start my own business.”
Whilst researching what materials to use within her creations, Síofra decided against using expensive recycled materials.
“When I was first starting out, it just seemed totally ridiculous to be buying very expensive recycled materials from the likes of Japan where the processes were very high end,” she explains.
“I thought there must be something around me that is more economical and sustainable, so that’s how I started using the material I use now, and it just sort of grew from that.
“It was never my intention to use the material that I did, it was my way of starting off and it got a really good response.
“I managed to develop contacts and source more and it snowballed.”
Síofra incorporates truck tarpaulin and aeroplane seat materials into her designs; textiles that are sourced from all over Ireland and then industrially washed in rainwater.
Each bag is hand cut and stitched on a vintage Japanese Juki sewing machine in a small workshop at the foot of Cave Hill in north Belfast.
“There’s actually huge industry all over Ireland and particularly in Northern Ireland, there’s a lot of stuff being made here that we’ve no idea it’s being made here, from life rafts to aeroplane seats — all sorts of things,” Síofra explains.
“I end up getting materials second-hand. A lot of my aeroplane straps came from an artist who had a huge box of them in her studio that she sourced from someone else.
“I’m always being randomly contacted by people who tell me such-and-such is clearing out a warehouse, they might have something you’re interested in.
“More often than not, the material isn’t suitable.
“I’m at the point now where I’m quite particular. I’ve learned that I need to price my time as well, so if it’s taking me hours to clean something, that’s just time lost.
“Now I only take things that need minimal cleaning, minimal adjustment, that I can move ahead and start working with almost immediately.
“I have developed contacts for materials from all over the island of Ireland. People contact me a lot offering different things.
“There’s no set distributor for anything because of the nature of waste, of end of roll, of end of product, of something being emptied or something being cleared out. It’s constantly changing, constantly evolving and there’s no set middleman,” Síofra says.
“Truck tarpaulin is my focus now. I have used multiple different fabrics including banner cloth, it’s lightweight PVC but it’s too lightweight.
“The truck tarpaulin is much more heavy duty, so you can bend it and turn corners, while banner cloth cracks at the corners when I’ve tried to make a bag structure out of it. I’m currently on the lookout for a yellow Liam Connolly tarp, if anyone has one, please get in touch.”
The craftsperson is in business for five years now and for the first two to three years, it was on a part-time basis.
“At the start I had multiple jobs in order to support Jump the Hedges. I worked in Maven on the Lisburn Road, Belfast. Then I did workshops, and I taught part-time in multiple universities all over Ireland from Belfast, to try and make a go of my business,” Síofra says.
“I had multiple income revenues and then Covid happened and they all abruptly came to an end. All my part-time teaching ended, so I basically had to focus solely on the bags. It was a matter of do one thing well.
“What had been happening to me previously with Jump the Hedges was that I had done so many business start-up courses where people had said, ‘You really need to be in shops, you really need to wholesale — that is the retail route, that’s the only way to retail’.
“I really struggled with that, because I was making everything myself, and shop mark-ups are huge; they are two and half or three times what you sell an item for. Say you sell something for £20, they are going to sell it for £60, £70 or £80.
“It’s such a huge mark-up in shops and I just couldn’t do it in order to keep my prices any way reasonable.
“Because of Covid, people had to go to my website, they no longer asked, ‘What shops are you in?’ I became really busy then because everyone was online shopping and my website was getting a lot of traction.”
Struggling to keep up with demand, Síofra implemented a ‘bag drop’ system whereby she would allow herself a period of time to solely work on designing and making her products, which would then go on sale on a pre-advertised date.
“It takes so long to make one bag that it meant the online shop was constantly selling out, so that’s how the whole concept of drops came about,” she says.
“I started to work solidly on the bags, and to open the shop every four to six weeks and then close it again. Now it’s evolved into a seasonal process and the drops sell out quickly. The Christmas drop sold out within 30 minutes, and I did one where 100% of the profits went to Ukraine and that sold out in five minutes.”
Last week Síofra was announced as one of the five winners of the annual RDS Craft Awards. She was awarded a €10,000 cash prize to support the development of her craft and business skills, a free stand at the annual GIFTED — The Contemporary Craft and Design Fair which runs at the RDS each December, and six hours of targeted mentoring with a craft and design professional.
The creative says she was delighted and shocked at the accolade: “I thought it was a really good reflection on how things are moving in the craft industry, that the ‘suffering artist’ profile is starting to disappear and instead they are investing money in people that are commercial and who want to make money from their craft.
“It was quite shocking and I was surprised, because I am full-time self-employed with my business and I don’t have multiple other things, I thought it was excellent for me as an individual, but also for the craft sector in general, because it was in support of actually making money, because — I discuss it a lot — there’s a real narrative around ‘the suffering artist’, so it was a good opportunity for everyone to see, you can actually make money from a craft enterprise.”
Since 2018 the RDS Craft Awards, in its present guise, has awarded €250,000 in support to emerging Irish makers. The awards are based on a bursary style model and can be spent on further education and training, research, development of new work, mentoring, purchase of equipment, studio improvements, websites and residencies.
Síofra plans to spend her prize money to further develop her skills by attending a three-month course in the leading school for bag making internationally; Scuola del Cuoio in Florence, Italy.
“I’m hoping to do a bag-making course in Italy. Because my background is in fashion design I’m self-taught with regards to bags, and I just would like to do a formal training apprenticeship,” she says.
“It would be next year, I’ve got too much on this year with projects I’m involved in, and also as part of the prize we are given a free stand at the RDS GIFTED, it’s like a Christmas fair that runs over five days. So from here on, I’ll be prepping for that.”
The next Jump the Hedges drop will take place in June, featuring four different designs that retail for £70-£270.
“I currently have four products; a fanny bag which is a bum bag, a stash bag which is a small kit bag that people use for swimming gear, a yoga sleeve for carrying the mat, and a tote bag,” Síofra says.
“The tote is what has elevated the brand and brought me in to the likes of the RDS because they are a much-more crafted product, there’s a huge amount of work in them; they are probably two and a half day’s work each at least.
“They are more fashion, more luxury really, and tote bags are more the direction I want to go because I love spending time on stuff as opposed to being a conveyor belt of just manufacturing process.
“I like to actually spend time working on something and evolving it, and that is how I see this brand moving forward — with more crafted pieces.”
To view Síofra’s collection, visit www.jumpthehedges.com or see @jumpthehedges on Facebook or Instagram.