The handling of homespun fabric in a sophisticated manner is the forte of Sybil Connolly.1
In 1953, Irish designer Sybil Connolly was "discovered" by a group of American department store buyers and fashion reporters visiting Ireland. Having worked as a dressmaker in London and Dublin since the late 1930s, Connolly was actually an experienced designer. Connolly's designs were a hit with the American visitors, and she was invited to the United Stated to present her work. In March of 1953, Connolly arrived in Philadelphia to present a collection at Gimbels Department Store. Inevitably, the showing was scheduled for St. Patrick's Day.
Though her first collection featured a variety of well-received suits and day dresses, it was a ball gown of finely pleated Irish linen "of a quality so fine it was almost chiffon-like in weight" that received the most attention.2 As her career progressed, Connolly's consistent use of this same lightweight, pleated linen became a trademark. In 1971, almost 20 years after Connolly's first visit to the United States, women attending a Sybil Connolly trunk show in New York were still enthusiastic about her pleated linen dresses.
Sybil Connolly's trademark gowns required a tremendous amount of fabric. To construct one pleated evening dress required between 72 and 90 yards of un-pleated Irish handkerchief linen. After undergoing a secret pleating process, this initial yardage was greatly reduced, resulting in 7 to 10 yards of slightly irregular, narrow linen pleats. Like the early 20th century designer Mario Fortuny, Sybil Connolly was very protective of her pleating process, swearing that it was a secret she would "carry to the grave."3
In her designs, Connolly usually oriented the pleats horizontally, covering the seams with self-fabric cording. The cords also lengthen the overall line of the garment, providing a counterbalance to the horizontal pleats. As Connolly tended towards solid colors, the stiff cording also provides a necessary visual contrast to the soft linen pleats.
As demonstrated by her long-term use of Irish linen, Sybil Connolly was deeply invested in showcasing and preserving Irish textile arts. Throughout her career, Connolly utilized Irish textiles in her designs, often working directly with small-scale manufacturers. In a 1959 interview, she described the cottage industries supported by her success, stating that she had "fifty-four lace makers and 200 hand-weavers working for me in their cottages in County Donegal."4 In the same article, Connolly discussed a new textile discovery, a family of silk weavers who had been working in Dublin for generations. She also described her "panic" over the Irish embroidery industry, which had been dying out due to widespread emigration. In 1971, near the end of her career as a couturier, she lamented the unavailability of Carrickmacross lace, noting that younger nuns weren't interested in learning the craft, which they considered too tedious.Skirt
Gift of Jane Tucker
1 "Homespun Fabrics by Sybil Connolly" New York Times 19 Mar. 1956: 28.
2 "Irish Design Show Set for St. Patrick's Day" New York Times 14 Mar. 1953: 11.
3 Wagner, Ruth. "Designers Beating New Path to Washington." Washington Post 6 Oct. 1959: B9.
4 Robertson, Nan. "Fashions Turn to Green for Noted Irish Stylist." New York Times 21 May 1959: 25.