County Donegal, a region of breath-taking beauty in Northwest of Ireland is synonymous with tweed. For centuries, every farm hand-loomed its own wool after harvest. Now, most of that tweed is machine-made at a commercial mill. But at a bend in the road, in a tiny village called Kilcar, is Studio Donegal Spinners & Handweavers, where hand-looming is flourishing.
The woollen mill and retail operation was founded by the Donaghy family in 1979, reviving the labor-intensive practice of hand-looming. There are other, bigger commercial operations, but very few handweavers anymore-- and Tristan Donaghy says his small mill produces the best.
"Anybody who wants to call their tweed hand-woven, fair enough, if it is," Donaghy says. "But we're the standard bearer. So you know, if you're going to make handwoven tweed — and it may be a bit cheeky of me - you've got to be as good as me." He employs about 15 people.
Tweed is a color-flecked or tightly patterned woven wool yarn and an Irish and Scottish tradition. Studio Donegal still uses handspun yarn — a bit of it spun on Victorian spindles or old machinery is used for special blankets. But the softest sheep's wool is merino or crossbred from Australia and South America.
"Irish wool would take the back off your legs," says Donaghy, whose father Kevin spent a lifetime in England in textiles before returning to Donegal.
The cottage industry in Ireland had largely disappeared by the mid-20th century and textile manufacturing plummeted, primarily because of globalization. When the Donaghy's took over the mill, hand-weaving had ceased altogether and jobs were scarce. The company wanted to boost textile jobs in Donegal.
"Use your indigenous skills," Donaghy recalls saying. "I mean, if I produced old hard tweed, such as was produced a hundred years ago, there'd be no future. I've got to produce beautiful things."
And they do-- blankets, jackets, scarves, caps, for clients as far away as Germany and Japan. Visitors can buy them in a small gallery, or observe the weaving.
Wooden looms don't look a lot different than they did hundreds of years ago. Big, boxy things-- guided by hand. John Heena, who's in his 50s, hand-looms tweeds the way his ancestors did.
"The small town that I came from, there were six houses and eight handloom weavers," Heena says, while weaving a classic Herringbone tweed pattern.
"It was the first thing I'd ever seen in me life, like. I grew up sitting on the seat of me father, like. He died as a young man of a massive heart attack. Actually there was no electricity then. They worked under the power of an oil lamp."
There's a new generation now. Beside Heena is 24-year-old Kevin McGillicuddy, another weaver, whose uncle was a also handweaver. He was making a pattern called American spiral --- a brilliant red diamond on a grey background. In a five-day week he can weave about 100 meters of cloth-- enough for 45 jackets. Studio Donegal weaves roughly 10,000 meters of cloth a year. That's only a fraction of what a commercial house would make. But owner Tristan Donaghy says Studio Donegal is doing well, selling to clients, visitors and online, making an old-fashioned product. A jacket sells for about $400.
"As I keep saying to young people who come in, this isn't a jacket for an office dandy with a flower in his lapel," he says. "This is a jacket for a real modern man. Because come evening he can turn his collar up, put his lapel across, run home keeping warm, and when he gets home, he can roll up his sleeves and help with the dishes."
Now that is a twist of the modern on Irish tweed!
Jacki Lyden is the host of The Seams podcast, and The Seams, an occasional series on fashion as culture on NPR.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Now we're going to the northwest of Ireland, down the coastal rold (ph) - road called the Wild Atlantic Way in County Donegal. It is a region of breathtaking beauty. In the village of Kilcar is Studi Donegal (ph) - Studio Donegal, a small weaving mill and a retail operation. Jacki Lyden brings us the story from The Seams, an occasional NPR series about fashion as culture.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANDLOOM)
JACKI LYDEN, BYLINE: This is the sound of a handloom at Studio Donegal Spinners & Handweavers. Think of it like you would a microbrewery and meet Tristan Donaghy, a throwback whose family revived hand-looming here. There are larger industrial operations and a few other cottage makers, but he says he's the best.
TRISTAN DONAGHY: So you know, if you're going to make hand-woven tweed, you've got to be, as I say - it's a bit cheeky of me - but you've got to be as good as me.
LYDEN: Tweed, of course, is a color-flecked or tightly pattered woven wool, an Irish and Scottish tradition.
Does - would you tell me a little bit about where the yarn for tweed comes from?
DONAGHY: Well, the yarn for tweed is a woolen yarn, which means that it's spun on the woolen system, where the fiber in the yarn is random in direction. But to really make a tweed yarn, you should really have nice little naps or spots of color in it.
At the moment, we would be buying most of our tweed yarns from the spinning mill about 500 meters down the road.
LYDEN: Once, all the farms of Donegal had hand-weaving or looming operations. Textiles globalized. Irish manufacturing of cloth plummeted. Today, the mill uses soft merino sheep's wool from New Zealand. Irish sheep's wool, they say, would take the back off your legs.
DONAGHY: If I produced old, hard tweed, as was produced 100 years ago, there'd be no future. I've got to hand weave, but I have got to create and design and produce interesting and beautiful things.
LYDEN: And they do - blankets, jackets, scarves.
DONAGHY: ...From here now, unfortunately. But this is the sewing.
DONAGHY: There are jackets that have been made, which are going to Japan in 10 days' time. There other jackets going to Germany. These cushions are going to a company called Makers & Brothers in Dublin.
LYDEN: Wooden looms for handweavers don't look a lot different today than they did hundreds of years ago. Big, boxy things now run on electric power. John Heena is guiding the yarn with a shuttle in a left-to-right motion.
So you're hand-looming everything here.
JOHN HEENA: All handwoven, yeah. Yeah. That's actually herringbone style if you're familiar with it.
LYDEN: Yeah, herringbone pattern, yes.
LYDEN: Of course, the herringbone is the most classic tweed pattern. Heena, in his 50s, comes from generations of handloomers. His accent is as authentic as his tweed.
HEENA: In the small town that I came from, there were six houses in it, and there were eight handloom weavers. So the first thing I ever seen in my life - I grew up with it, really. And I remember, like, sitting on the seat of my father, like. When he died a young man - massive heart attack took him away, like. But actually there was no electricity then. They worked on the power of an oil lamp.
LYDEN: There's a new generation as well. At the next loom, it's Kevin McGillicuddy.
May I ask how old you are?
KEVIN MCGILLICUDDY: Twenty-four.
LYDEN: So what attracted you to coming in here and doing the hand-looming?
MCGILLICUDDY: Well, I took it after my uncle, you know. He was a handweaver, and that was how I got interested.
LYDEN: It'll take him about five days to make around 100 meters of cloth, enough for 45 jackets. Studio Donegal weaves roughly 10,000 meters a year, a fraction of what a commercial operation would produce. Owner Tristan Donaghy says his little company is doing well - selling to clients, visitors and online, making an old-fashioned product.
DONAGHY: And I keep saying to young people who come in - this isn't a jacket, you know, for an office dandy with a flower in his lapel. This is a jacket for a real modern man because come evening, as I say, he can turn his collar up, put his lapels across, run home. keep him warm. When he gets home, he can roll up the sleeves and help with the dishes.
LYDEN: Now that is a twist of the modern on Irish tweed. For NPR News, I'm Jacki Lyden.
by Editor, wpsu Public Media for Central Pennsylvania. To listen to this podcast click here