Raised in Cullyhanna, South Armagh, the influence of Síofra’s rural upbringing has fed her passion for the environment and the creation of a less wasteful society in Ireland today. Having worked both internationally and nationally with the likes of Adidas, Levis and Portwest, Síofra has drawn on her impressive design background to develop her own environmentally minded design process, that aligns with her passion for sustainability and the zero-waste movement.
Having studied fashion design at the National College of Art & Design in Dublin, Síofra entered the field of professional design, accumulating experience in a diverse range of disciplines. Starting as an outdoor designer with Portwest in Mayo, she then travelled to San Francisco where she taught fashion design at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and worked as a pattern cutter with Levi’s.
Her next opportunity was a big one, as she was hired by Adidas to work on their outdoor clothing range. The experiences that she had with them in Germany greatly shaped her processes going forward.
“I don't feel like I knew how to design before I went there. I didn't really understand fabrics or how to make collections. In previous design jobs I did a bit of everything, but with Adidas my only job was to design. In that way it was a great experience. Though more and more I often found myself sitting at a computer working, thinking that no matter where I was I would still be working on a computer, sending designs to China. It would just be a different logo getting put on the design.”
Disillusioned with the over consumption within large scale design, Síofra returned to Ireland with a desire to go out on her own and started an MFA in Multidisciplinary Design as a way to start the journey in to self employment.
“I wrote my whole thesis for my masters on zero waste design and zero waste living. The conclusion was that you can only really do what you are granted access to - which is really frustrating, but it's the truth. Coming from a rural background, with loads of farms around, you are much more connected to the environment. Growing up, recycling was a no-brainer - we just did it."
“For my Masters collection I was looking at all these really cool Japanese fabrics but then I thought, why don't I look and see what is available around me. A large majority were unsuitable but after a lot of trial and error I found some fabrics that worked. For me it was simply looking at the abundance of waste materials around me, that's why I started using it."
The concept of a practical bag to carry a yoga mat in was the direct result of a design flaw Síofra found in a product she had purchased whilst living in San Francisco.
"Whenever I was living in San Francisco I bought this really expensive North Face bag. It was yoga mat 'compatible' and it was absolutely useless. I remember thinking to myself - North Face are meant to be some of the best designers in the world, this is awful. I actually knocked a coffee out of someone's hand one day because my mat was sticking out - I just thought, this is a disaster, I'm going to fix this! So that was what my masters project was - functional ways to carry yoga mats. It was something I needed personally, and friends kept saying they would buy one too. It was really just an entry into a market - a way to begin."
And so Jump the Hedges was born. We ask Síofra about the meaning behind the brand’s name.
“I didn't want to pigeon-hole myself with a yogic name. One evening driving home I was playing my favourite song, a Van Morrison cover by the Waterboys. It's a song I love called The Sweetest Thing; 'I stroll my merry way and jump the hedges first' is one of the first lines in the song. It embodies a feeling and a way of living.
Síofra works from a studio in North Belfast where she produces her bags by hand.
“The tarps are industrially washed in rain water and then laid out to dry when the weather is good. I cut the best bits of the material, incorporating the original branding on the tarps into the design if I can. The bags are then sewn and finished by me.”
"A sense of responsibility is very important. Whatever you create, you have to know where it's going to end up. The material I use is being saved from landfill and turned into a practical product that will hopefully get years of use before reaching the end of its life. You should always be able to have the end-point in mind.”
“In design or business, it isn't the most creative or talented people who succeed, it is the people that persist the most. Persistence is the key to success in anything. Even a design problem, if you just persist, it will eventually get solved. It can be difficult to source materials in small quantities, whereas at Adidas I could have whatever fabrics and trims I wanted because it was such a huge company. I would produce designs and hand my work over to the development team to be made up in the factories. Now that it's just me, I do everything - from sourcing fabric and trims, completing manufacture and controlling marketing and sales. I am looking forward to being able to hand parts over when I am more established as it can be overwhelming doing everything yourself.”
Jump the Hedges is largely run through social media. There Síofra shares images of her design and manufacturing process, as well as regular updates on new products and stockists. While vital to the success of the business, being transparent and real online is essential to Síofra.
"I struggled a lot with social media at the start, as I didn't want to create anything false. Social media is incredibly key, but everyone seems to have a difficult relationship with it, and you can get sucked in. Though it is so exciting that you can create your own business through a free app. Up until a few months ago my sales were 100% social media - now I have a few different outlets, but around 90% of my sales are still through social media. I wouldn’t have a business without it."
Along with running Jump the hedges, Síofra works four other jobs. During term time she teaches part time at Ulster University Belfast and Dublin Institute of Technology, while her Saturdays are spent working in Maven on the Lisburn road. Her fifth job is as a Recycling Ambassador. This role, funded by the Irish government, is an attempt to help improve efficiency in recycling plants through providing education to the general public.
"Up until recently, China has taken 90% of Ireland's recycling but now that has ended so the government has introduced this huge initiative. As ambassadors we travel the country explaining to people how to recycle more efficiently and therefore speeding everything up at the recycling plant. It would be amazing to have an initiative like this Northern Ireland also as most people are confused with recycling.”
"When you are any way recycling or zero-waste minded, just looking around you, you see waste everywhere. The hardest part for me, is keeping my mouth shut, to be honest. For example, when I was working on Game of Thrones, I did not see any recycling on site and no eco-awareness. Obviously there is a lot of money coming into the Northern Ireland economy through the television and film industry but we have a responsibility to look after our environment regardless of how much income the industry is generating. Reducing waste is a lifestyle adjustment more than anything. It's getting better at refusing, and also getting better at not feeling like we need so much. We need to start buying less but buying better."
As a self-proclaimed "Border Fox, with one foot in each place she believes that very few people have successfully managed to bridge the gap creatively between north and south. There needs to be more collaboration across the border."
"Because it’s a larger city, there is a bigger, more established creative scene in Dublin. There is a vibrant creative scene in Belfast, which is simply newer, and still developing. There is so much here, and what is cool about Belfast is that it's really small and has a very supportive community. Creatively, I feel like Belfast is as good a place to be as anywhere. Like any city- it's as good as you make it yourself."
This year is set to be very busy for Síofra. Last month she was made a Winston Churchill Fellow for 2018. Síofra will be travelling to the most sustainable cities and businesses throughout Europe, USA and Canada in order to develop zero waste community, design and education back in Belfast.
"I think this trip will change everything for Jump The Hedges. The business has evolved already in to a platform for me to promote eco awareness and zero waste living. I think it will be a massive game changer for me."