How Donegal yarn is made

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Monday, November 1st 2021
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*Donegal Coat update: The first batch is ready and will be shipping out this week. A smaller second batch will go on sale next week. Use the form on the shop page to be added to the waiting list for that if you're interested*

Jamie and I travelled to Donegal Yarns recently, to see where the historic yarn is spun, right on the wind-battered coast of Ireland. 

It’s one of the few traditional sites of manufacture in the British Isles I haven’t visited, and it seemed like good timing, given our new iteration of the Donegal Coat - using yarn from the last major spinner here - was about to be released. 

I found it fascinating. More interesting, if I’m honest, than I was expecting. 

I’ve visited almost 100 mills, ateliers, factories and workshops over the years, and it’s easy to become blasé about it. To think they have nothing new to offer.

But as soon as we were ushered into the waiting area at Donegal Yarns - with samples of coloured fleece on the table, and a craftswoman off to one side patiently carding it - I remembered why I love these visits so much. 

There’s nothing glamorous about a factory waiting room. It’s not a luxury hotel or a flagship store. But it’s real. 

We were offered a cup of tea. The noise of the factory was audible underneath everything, as we talked. And laid out on the table were the raw materials of the yarn. 

With Donegal tweed, I had always assumed the characteristic little flecks or ‘burrs’ came from some aspect of the weaving process. That it was tweaked, or made to run irregularly, in order to introduce that natural-seeming variation. 

But it’s actually the types of wool in the yarn. Two are used: one regular fibre that makes up the majority of the cloth, and one shorter, actually slightly felted, that makes up the flecks. 

You can see the two below, held by myself and Chris of Donegal Yarns. The one Chris is holding on the right is for the flecks. 

These two are mixed together, then spun into the yarn. 

Because the latter type is shorter and thicker, it sticks out or creates little slubs, which then get scattered randomly through the cloth when it’s woven. 

Originally this effect came from the hand spinning and weaving, and the fact that a greater range of wool was used. It was poor cloth, woven as a cottage industry around this area of Ireland - in the same way Harris Tweed has always been woven in Scotland. 

The land isn’t great for farming crops, so the local occupations were mostly fishing, grazing sheep, and using those animals for everything possible, including textiles. 

Thinking back to how Jamie and I drove in, around the sides of steep hills, through small farm holdings, looking out at the mist-shrouded Atlantic, it wasn’t hard to imagine a time when this area felt very cut off, and was reliant on everything local. 

Once Chris had explained the process, the coloured wool on the table in front of us took on greater significance. 

You could look on a sample like the mustard yellow above, and differentiate all the colours of felted fleece that were worked in - the oranges, greens and browns. You could see the pinks that lifted a brown cloth, or the blues that lightened a green. 

And of course, I appreciated more the flecks in my own coat. I was wearing our sample of the PS Donegal Coat - because it was nice to show Chris how his yarn had been used - and I looked at its yellows, browns and blues. 

There are fewer of those flecks in this year’s version of the coat, because it is a starker pattern of black and cream. If there were too many colours, or they were too strong, they would stand out much more in this version than in last year’s dark brown, for example. 

But still, I really feel it’s the thing that stops this coat being like any other regular, conservative herringbone. It’s not just grey, it’s also blue, tan, orange and white, scattered in among black and the cream stripes. 

As I said, there’s nothing like a factory visit to bring you closer to a piece of clothing. 

It’s the perfect antidote to a high-street chain, where all the clothes are stacked rail upon rail, hanging on thin plastic hangers, as if no one really cares what the clothes are at all. (Which is odd, when you think about it, given it’s a clothes shop.) 

The rest of the tour I found interesting too, but in a slightly more geeky way. More because I had never visited a spinner, so all the machines and processes were new. 

There are basically three. The first is carding, where the wool is brushed out straight, into long lines that look like yarn but have no strength - you can just pull them apart easily. 

Below you can see the carding at Donegal Yarns. The advantage of materials with bright colours in them is that they stand out against the dark machines, like the pink below. It also makes it look like a 100-year-old candy-floss machine. 

The last image shows me pulling apart a piece of the wool, to demonstrate how fragile it still is. 

The resulting ‘hanks’ of wool have to be washed and dried - to remove as much of the natural oil as required - before it can be spun. 

That’s the hanks below, looking almost like seaweed, fresh from a local catch. 

It’s actually a great way to get a sense of how the yarn would be like if it was woven into a length of cloth, and I found myself fantasising about orange, yellow and biscuit-coloured coats as we walked around the washing and drying rooms. 

Then the yarn is spun. At speed, onto the cones you (or realistically I) see at mills being loaded onto looms for weaving. 

This is no less impressive, but harder to get a handle on, given the speed at which it’s done. 

Still, most of the machinery at Donegal Yarns is old, some of it (like the mule hanking machine below) being as much wood as metal.

Some even dates from when the factory was set up, at the beginning of the 20th century - as a local government project to bring home-based crafts all together. 

And today it’s last large spinner in the area. There are a couple of small operations, but mostly doing weaving as well, and mostly for interiors. 

Which of course makes it even more special. Thank you to Chris and all the team for making us so welcome, and for answering all my painstaking questions.

It makes my coat - and all the others we have made and will make - feel so much more personal.

More on the history of Donegal tweed on the Donegal Yarns website

Photography: Jamie Ferguson @jkf_man

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Mark

I do love with material like this that from a distance it looks muted and the closer you get you realise it is actually filled with shocking bright colours and flecks. I think it was Ruskin who said something along the lines of “in every rock there is a mountain” meaning that the closer you look at a rock you start to see the features that make up a mountain and with cloth like this it feels the same: the closer you look then you start to see the features of the landscape and people that made it. It makes the end product so much more exciting and intimate. Love it!

Matthew V

Fascinating. Amazing colours.

Jason

This is why I’m interested in PS. I just love the devotion to the artisan.
Regarding the coat, I like the V3 a lot but in terms of cloth pattern, the V1 still reigns supreme. It is just so subtle and versatile.

Paul Brough

I have known complete strangers in the street say to me “that’s a beautiful coat” about my V1. That makes it unique in my experience.

Zed

I doubt you meant it as anything other than a common geographical descriptor, but I did look a little askance at the description of the mill as a “site of manufacture in the British Isles”. Maybe you could change the sentence to: “It’s one of the few traditional sites of manufacture in Britain and Ireland I haven’t visited…”

David

Simon, I would have thought that you would have a greater appreciation for the political and emotional sensitivity of describing Donegal as part of the British Isles when it is located in the Republic of Ireland. Equally disappointing is your dismissive response to a sensible correction posed by Zed

Steve B

I wonder if the descriptor of the Iberian Peninsular upsets Spain or Portugal, or The Balkans for the various nations there. The British Isles is a geographic perm, even Great Britain I understand came about to differentiate it from Brittany many centuries ago. Too much ‘offence’ seems to be from those who look for it. How about the Irish Sea…… Anyway, Simon, another great article on a fine Irish yarn & tradition.

Steve B

Agree, I do not consider myself British, I doubt there are few true Britons in the UK, I’m English with much of thar heritage in my genes, but I’m not over sensitive because Roman Britain was the land of the Britons.
It’s great to see these skills to counter up a blend of various colours to bring a different hue very like artists on a palate mixing their oils, but instead enabling you to still detect the combined colours of the cloth. Harris Tweeds in a similar way has this ability which gives great character, depth, heritage & love of these materials.

Ritamary

Ireland is not, and never was the land of the Britons. It seems impossible for so many to grasp that even now. Maybe it’s time to try and relinquish those last vestiges of colonial patter?
I don’t know any Irish friends who would not find that reference wildly outdated as well as impertinent.

Martins

Semantics here.

Ireland IS part of British isles. BUT it is not part of the UK. One is geographical descriptor, one is political.

I’m pretty sure that when first couple pages of google will stop listing Ireland as part of British isles, people will stop referring to it this way.

Andrew

Wonderful. Thanks for showing us how this fabulous stuff is made.

JJ Katz

Really interesting!

Chris K

Thanks for this one Simon, it puts a beautiful glaze on the recent Donegal coat release, fascinating to see the process.

Your vintage candy floss machine reference is a good one, when I see those dark old machines, with that dull vintage metallic glow, they almost have a menacing look contrasted against the loose shreds of pink wool. Hats off to both you and Jamie, between his photography and your image selection/curation, you really know how to capture the energy of a place, from that Gaelic poster, to those beautiful machines.

Ck

Aaron

What a wonderful report, both in words and pictures.

D. O'Brien

I loved reading about the “hanks of wool before they’re driedto remove as much of the natural oil as required . . .” It makes me think of that wonderful lanolin scent from of all my favorite Irish and Scottish wool sweaters. Great post. Thank you.  

Matthew

Just wanted to say that this was really great. Thanks for making the trip and sharing with all of us.

Kim B.

That was a very enjoyable read. Did the tour lead to any ideas for next year’s fabric?

Martins

soo what are the chances of it not being grey next year? I REALLY don’t want to pull out a credit card but if next year will be mint green or bright orange I probably should get this one…

p.s. my vote would go for v1 weight but v1 or V3 colour…

p.p.s after commenting that anthology polo coat would look great in your tweed they basically said “perhaps something similar”… so there is that too…

Martins

In that case, I’ll wait and see until next year! Scared me there for a second!

Tony H

Hi Simon – is there a location label out there for Donegal tweed like there is for Harris tweed?
It seems like there’s far too many Donegal tweed products out there on the mass market for it all to pretty much come from one old mill, and it would be nice to support the traditional ones, given the chance.

James

Hi Simon, great article and I’m glad you got to experience Donegal. As a cyclist, you may be keen to know that there is a fantastic amateur 3-day event – the Ras Donegal – during June, centered around Ardara.
Without wanting to venture into the Brexit quagmire, Donegal is of course in the Republic and so Brexit shouldn’t have any effect on them seeking EU GI protection. Interestingly, it is a county of Ulster that remained in the republic after the partition so there is a lot of shared heritage with areas of Northern Ireland although as an Englishman, I’d be wise not to venture there either.

Jason

Probably just a ‘Course Of Dealings in that if Donegal tweed has become a generic name for a pattern then this will be difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

SteveB

I agree after this lapse of time, however, if there was some accreditation for genuine Donegal tweed & yarn that would surely attract a market from those only interested in heritage products rather than imitations.

Steve B

Hi Simon,
Regarding Donegal & trademarking or protection of authentic brands like Harris Tweed & others; why has Brexit got anything to do with this being harder to achieve as ROI is still within the EU where numerous products get such authentic stamps. We need such protections to ensure the credibility of the product & that it is not undercut by inferior products which might lead to its own demise.

SteveB

Hi Simon,
From what I’ve read the Irish commissioned a Swedish advisory group’s recommendation to protect Donegal Tweed back in 60’s, it chose to ignore it. In 2015 there seems to be an initial move for protecting such non food items, about 800 in the EU. There seems only to be protection for foods, so a long way to go. Harris Tweed had some protection dating back to 1910 & an Act of Parliament in the 90’s. They seem to be very late in protecting these ‘unique’ products which are now generic.
https://donegalnews.com/2015/10/donegal-tweed-listed-for-special-eu-protection/

Guy Graff

I have the brown version of the Donegal and got compliments from strangers the first day wearing it here in NYC. It’s wonderful material.

Nico

Is this descriptive of tweed cloth only or of so called Donegal knitwear as well? Or is the latter an altogether different thing?

SteveB

Hi Simon,
From what I’m understanding Donegal yarn/tweed from the mill is wool. But as you probably know there are Donegal yarn blends with cashmere, Inis Marin knitwear for example, so are these blends generic ones or does the mill use other yarns apart from wool?

Boris

I do enjoy these pieces on the production of various aspects that join together to become the clothes that we enjoy so very much. Thank you for the article, hope I myself can visit one day.

Two questions on the process: is the spinning process which gives the yarn its strength? And what is the reason for removing the animal oils on the fibres?

DD

Hi Simon,
Thank you for this great recap of the factory process. The photography highlighting the very un-Ikea aesthetics of the factory only made it better. Did they tell you about the origins of the sourcing of the wool? (E.g. local or from New Zealand).

Regarding the above discussion about protection of origin, which in the EU so far only covers food, I think the easiest way to safeguard quality would be to form a co-op and register it as a trademark, as ”Genuine Donegal Tweed” or something similar. I think that is what the Harris Tweed producers did. Although part of the charm of the PDO/IGP/AOP label is that anyone can start producing it if they fulfill the right criteria. Creating a registered trademark could probably lead to the existing companies protecting their product to keep prices up and volumes limited. Which might be good, but different.

Nico

Are flecks really essential to Donegal? I own an Abraham Moon where they are not perceptible and am now seeing a few Sherry tweeds that look the same.

Joe

Hi there,
Can one order the yarn from this factory for knitting? I could not find an offer online.
Best

Gail

I’m a handweaver, (hobby, not vocation) and i enjoyed seeing the process of making tweed yarn/cloth. Thanks!