Derry Girls: Making Ma Mary’s 90s jumper left Belfast designer in stitches

Callan Knitwear founder had a ball meeting star Tara Lynne after being commissioned for a 90s-style jumper

Mary, who recently relaunched her company Callan Knitwear online, is building up a bit of a portfolio for unique pieces for TV and film.

But it was her commission to come up with a funny jumper for the character Ma Mary in the smash hit Derry Girls which really got her creative juices flowing.

She explains: “Cathy Prior who was the costume designer for the show contacted me out of the blue and asked me to design a jumper for Ma Mary and said they would need it in three weeks.

Mary Callan

“She wanted a 90s pattern and as Ma Mary was a feeder, Cathy thought a food theme would be best.

“I taught knitting in the Art College and we had an old machine which was pre-programmed with decorative 90s patterns. I showed Cathy the book of motifs and she picked out some she liked and I went off to draw some more on the computer.

“We decided on bacon slices, eggs, a wooden bowl with a spoon sticking out of it designed on a 90s diamond pattern.

“I got to meet the actress Tara Lynne O’Neill who plays Mary to measure her up for the jumper and she was really good craic, she was even funnier in real life.

“The design was very much Cathy’s idea; I just facilitated the making of it.

“It is such a good show and it was a whole new departure for me, and really good to do something a bit comical and I got a real comedy buzz out of it.

“I think the jumper is now in the Derry Girls collection at the Visit Derry Museum.”

Mary’s pieces are all hand-finished

The icing on the cake was that Tara’s character Mary wore the jumper twice on the show, the first time in series three when daughter Erin suspected her of having a hot affair with a plumber, and in the very final scene of the last episode.

Mary has also designed a sweater for the Northern Ireland crime drama Bloodlands and was asked to create a cardigan as part of the wardrobe for the movie The Wakening.

However, it is in her own fun fashion designs that she has managed to make a name for herself, combining bright colours with bold patterns to create a popular range of modern jumpers, snoods and scarves.

All of her pieces are hand-loomed, hand-tooled and hand-finished at her workshop in Conway Mill in Belfast, where she has amassed a big collection of modern and traditional knitting machines.

While Mary is passionate about heritage skills, she also aims to create exuberant designs that bring energy and joy to the wearer.

She says: “I love working with bright colours and by putting a certain colour with a pattern, it can create an energetic pop.

“Colour is massive to me; it is my starting point when I am designing.

“Colour can have such an effect on your mood and certain colours can bring energy to a piece. I like to use it to create items that are easy to wear and yet have that bit of fun created by a pop of colour.”

One of the knitting machines in Mary’s studio

Mary (40) was raised in Newcastle and growing up surrounded by the rugged beauty of the Mourne Mountains was to help set her on the pathway to specialising in knitwear fashion design.

She explains: “I did a foundation degree in art and design and decided to focus on fashion design.

“I studied at Central Saint Martin’s, London, and my tutors realised my work was quite textured which was influenced by the Mournes and they felt it would be best-suited to knitwear design.

“I was a messy sewer so I decided that my pathway would be knitwear.

“When I graduated, I enrolled in an advanced knitting machine course in Brighton. My study at college had been creative and this was more technical and allowed me to combine different knitting techniques.

“After studying I took a year out and I had planned to launch my fashion career in London but my mum took ill and I came back to Newcastle to help care for her.

“I then took a stall at St George’s Market in Belfast just to have something to do. I also sold some of my designs to shops in Dublin so there was two strands to my business.”

Ma Mary wears the jumper designed by Mary Callan in two episodes including the Good Friday Agreement special.

Mary designed a range of luxury scarves and snoods which sold in the weekly market in Belfast, while she enjoyed bringing colour and pattern to a luxury jumper collection.

She also landed a job teaching the technical skills of knitting for fashion students at the College of Art in Belfast, a position she was grateful for when Covid-19 hit, closing markets and retail shops.

However, emerging out of the pandemic she has returned to her first love of design full time, launching her new Callan Knitwear business online last November.

Callan scarves and sweaters begin life as a spool of yarn from one of the top wool or cashmere mills in England, Scotland and Italy. Mary works with only Merino wood and cashmere/wool mix yarns.

At her Belfast studio, the yarn is threaded up on traditional Swiss and Japanese knitting looms.

Ma Mary’s jumper in Derry Girls

Although these machines are from an era when slow fashion was standard and not a buzz word, sustainability runs through everything Mary does.

She says: “As well as the many benefits of wearing wool, the material I use is grown year round by Merino sheep, who consume a simple blend of sunshine, water, fresh air and grass.

“Every year these sheep produce new fleece, which means wool is a renewable fibre. Also wool is 100% biodegradable so does not contribute to micro plastic pollution in our oceans and our land.

“My Merino neck warmers are really popular, people love them. I have recently updated them from pure wool to include 20% cashmere which makes them really soft.

“I was at an event in Dublin and a girl came up to me to say she had had hers for 10 years. That really makes me happy to think that people can wear it for so long. I do spend a lot of time getting the tension right as the finish is very important to me in making sure it is long-lasting.”

After a massive flurry of orders when she launched, Mary is hoping to take some time out this year and add to her range with some new designs.

She adds: “I have done an eveningwear collection before and I want to look at that again as well as some big comedy knits and also feminine flattering shapes.

“I had a really good winter and couldn’t believe how the website took off. I was actually struggling to keep up with orders. It’s been great.

“I think people are more into handmade and local made now and going forward I hope to keep adding to my range with some new — and of course fun — designs.”

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