Earlier in May we attended the ‘Linen Futures’ event collated by Jane McCann. An exhibition displaying the rising talent existing within the Irish design community. It was a chance to meet old friends and new and hear more about this vision for the future of the Linen landscape within Ireland. One of these voices belonged to Fiona McKelvie founder of McBurney and Black. Fiona has taken her career experience and love of linen to set up a company selling vintage linen that has been revived, dyed and given a new life. We admire what she is doing with linen and the respect she gives the fabric, since meeting we have been in touch with Fiona to learn a little more and bring you her story.

1.How did the vision for McBurney and Black come about?

I have been collecting antique and vintage linens for many years, Irish Linen in particular and, whilst I never harboured a desire to have a bricks and mortar shop, I did see an opportunity to share the collection as online businesses became more commonplace. So in September 2013 I launched the website, www.mcburneyandblack.com which I chose to name after my two grandmothers, using their maiden names. Both had been great needlewomen, embroidering wonderful pieces of linen in their day.

2.You have had a successful career in the fashion and textile industry, can you tell us a little about your experience?

I studied modern languages at Trinity College Dublin but didn’t feel that my future lay in teaching, so I headed to London to pursue a career in export sales. I landed my “dream job” with Liberty of London, combining my interest in textiles with my knowledge of languages. I enjoyed 14 years as Export Sales Manager for the wholesale division of the company. I worked closely with fashion labels and retailers as well as businesses in the home interiors sector, all of whom were buying Liberty fabrics and fashion accessories in many different parts of the world.

3.How has your travels and career impacted on how you select vintage linen for McBurney and Black?

All those years of international travel have given me insight into different countries’ appreciation of linens for the home. In Europe there are numerous different sizes of pillowcases for example. In the USA the tradition of “fine dining” is still widespread, so more formal damask tablecloths and napkins are much in demand. My customers come from all around the globe, so as well as my textile knowledge it is extremely useful to have had a background in exporting.

4.Have you a number of main sources for your vintage linen, or where do you get your pieces?

This is one of my main challenges, as finding good quality linens is becoming more and more difficult. I source mainly at auctions in England and Northern Ireland, but have also stumbled on lovely pieces at car boot sales and in charity shops. Then there is word of mouth, when I am fortunate to acquire private collections of linen.

 5.Before a piece can go on your store for sale what process must be carried out?

It depends on the condition of the linen. Often pieces have been in storage for years and almost everything will require laundering and ironing. The stains and storage marking must be removed before a piece can be photographed and listed on the website. Fortunately, I love to iron! It is very satisfying to see how a tired and dusty pile of linen can be transformed into sparkling white cloths and napkins ready to find a new owner.

 6.You offer ‘Revived Damask’, can you tell us a little more about this product?

Revived Damask is my way of giving a new lease of life to linen damask cloths and napkins.  Stains, storage marks or other blemishes can make a stunning piece of damask look tired and not worth keeping. It isn’t always possible to remove the stains, but I am adamant that such pieces still have many years of useful life ahead of them and should not be discarded. To avoid that I dye these pieces vibrant colours such as Fuchsia Pink and Chartreuse Green; bright colours are popular now that dining at home is a more casual affair. They bring a more contemporary feel and a splash of colour to the dining table.

7.As well as restoring vintage linen, dyeing vintage damask is also a specialty of yours. Is there a particular type of dye that you use to colour the fabric?

I have experimented with different processes but have found the most successful to be fibre reactive dyes commonly used in the fashion trade. Linen accepts dye particularly well and the distinctive sheen of beetled Irish Linen lends itself most effectively to the dye process and the original designs are beautifully highlighted by the addition of colour.

 8.What it is that you find so special about Linen?

I love the fact that linen is such a versatile fabric. Finely spun flax will have been used to produce a hand woven linen damask tablecloth or a coarser thread can be used to create a wonderfully absorbent huckaback towel. It softens and improves with use and repeated washing and is so long lasting.

And I am keen to share my view that what might be regarded as very traditional linens can still be relevant in our homes today.  A 1930s cutwork embroidered cloth can take on a totally different and more contemporary look simply by layering it over a coloured cloth.

 9.Have you a favourite piece of linen that you have restored?

Quite early on I acquired 2 lengths of Irish Linen damask fabric, which were in fact 12 huge table napkins, which had never been cut and sewn and I recognized them to have been made by John Shaw Brown of Edenderry. They had a magnificent intricate design of deer and game birds and would have been destined for use at shooting lunch parties at the country house where they were found. They were really dusty with sticky marks where the factory labels had been attached, but with much patience I was able to restore them to sparkling white and have them hemmed. An interior designer bought them for a client who owned a hunting lodge in Scotland, so I was delighted that these stunning pieces would finally be used as originally intended, albeit 90 years later!!

If you are interested to learn more about vintage damask and the history of it, or wish to purchase a piece of your own you can buy directly from McBurney and Black’s website. If you wish to know more about the history of Irish Linen or how you can purchase the Beetled Linen that Fiona mentioned, then please use the details below. We are proud to be the only Linen manufacturer in Ireland that is still producing Beetled Linen.