A visit to Molloy & Sons

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Friday, December 17th 2021
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Living in a city, it’s easy to become reliant on Google Maps. After all, it will tell you not only where things are, but how to get there, which train is fastest, and the branches of Pret a Manger along on the way. 

Driving from Belfast to Donegal a couple of months ago - from one side of the island of Ireland to the other - Google Maps did us proud. There was no loss of reception, no wrong turnings, and correct indication that there wasn’t a single Pret. 

But once we skirted the Donegal coast, things got a bit sketchy. Reception dropped in and out; landmarks quickly became hidden behind hills. For some reason the road signs always seemed to point to the middle of a field. 

I’d found John Molloy Woollen Mills on Google, and that’s where we were headed. Then I remembered something in Kieran’s email about it.

Yes. OK. He did explain that there was more than one Molloy mill in the area. The result of a family being in the wool business for over a century, and branching out in different directions.

On re-reading the email, it turned out Kieran had actually provided a Google Maps link. Smart man.

We needed to turn right after Molloy Woollen Mills, head down a single-lane road, take the second right onto a smaller road, and then stop where the road runs out. 

Except the reception dropped out again. We missed the turning. So down to the service station to make a three-point turn, and try again. 

The mist wasn’t helping. It was increasingly clear why this was wool country: wet, green and hilly. The sheep were loving it, but not much else could be farmed on those slopes. 

Finally we were on the right road. We crept up the hill and turned in at the first cluster of buildings. 

A house, two big barns. This could be it, but there was no sign, not even on the front door. Could this be the best-known Donegal mill in the world? Beloved of everyone from Beams to Paul Stuart to 18 East?

Jamie (Ferguson, photographer, driving) hung back as I walked to the door and rang the buzzer. There was a nervous minute, which felt more like fifteen, as I imagined the irate Irish farmer that was going to appear. 

The mist seemed to hang closer. The temperature dropped two degrees. 

Then Kieran Molloy appeared at the door, smiling warmly. And behind him were two floors of barn housing an entire mill’s worth of weaving machinery, violently clacking away. 

We were offered tea. 

Mills and factories seem to stay in my memory when they’re in beautiful or unusual locations.

Vitale Barberis Canonico, with the switchback mountains behind, is particularly vivid. John Smedley too, where the approach runs alongside its own custom-cut canal. 

Molloy & Sons is now one of those, and only partially because of that nervous minute in the mist. 

It’s the kind of place other brands tend to come and stay too. Kieran told us many stories, including those of the Beams team arriving in force to place their orders. The Molloy family house next door perpetually had one Beams staff member in the kitchen, just hanging out and drinking coffee. 

Then again, they had driven even further than us - from Dublin rather than Belfast. Four hours rather than three. 

That’s Kieran above. He is the sixth generation in the business, and runs it today with his father Shaun. 

“The first two generations were hand weavers, just for the local area,” says Kieran. “Then in the 1920s the third generation started exporting to the US - we used to have a showroom on 5th Avenue, opposite the New York Public Library.”

The business then split up, with one side focusing on knitting, while Kieran’s stayed with weaving. It’s Kieran’s uncle who runs Molloy Woollen Mills down the road, which is the knitting business. 

“My grandfather was still doing just hand weaving when he started - and I remember his first big export order was for 22,000 metres to Japan,” says Kieran. “That was an intense time. He was doing hand-knitted Arran sweaters too, all made locally.”

Since the 1990s Molloy & Sons has steadily modernised, and today it’s fair to say that the small buildings house a very modern weaving operation - a pocket-sized version of anything you'd find in Huddersfield or Biella. 

The vast majority of the business is weaving to order for brands, such as Beams. Only about 5% is made for cut lengths - which is why you don’t see bunches around very often. 

“We are trying to change that a little,” says Kieran. “One thing we learnt during the pandemic was the value of diversification - to having different streams of revenue.”

One way they’ve diversified is selling more of their own blankets (pictured above). “We’ve always done a few - it’s a good way to use up extra yarn," says Kieran. "But we’ve been doing more recently, selling them in local markets and giving people something to buy when they visit. And we’re just beginning to wholesale them as well, which is one more revenue stream.”

I was quite tempted by several of the bolts of Molloy Donegal tweed, which was sitting next to us on the first floor. One of them was a nice oatmeal colour and a mixture of wool and jute. It turned out the latter came from old coffee bags. 

“The bags were originally used by Starbucks,” says Kieran. “Jute is quite effective when mixed with wool - it gives the cloth a rugged texture and a natural variation.” (It is the bolt I am holding in the image above, talking to Kieran.)

I can see why brands come to Molloy to develop interesting Donegals: the small scale and personal involvement of Kieran and Shaun has to make it both easy and fun. 

The only cloth of theirs I’ve tried personally is the one used recently for the overcoat I designed with The Anthology - shown here. That was lovely, and though I’ve no reason to look beyond the mill we use for our Donegal coat with Private White, if I was looking to develop a new Donegal project, I’d certainly look to Molloy. 

“I think the drive for authenticity and local production has helped us in recent years,” says Kieran. “We recently started a hand-weaving course in Kilcar down the road, which is the first one there’s been in Ireland since 1980. And we’re starting a Donegal Tweed Association, to try and get greater protection for the craft.

"It's the support of customers like Permanent Style readers that keeps that going.”

More on the history of Molloy & Sons, including a video and some great old photos, on their News page here

Blankets, throws, and the tweed itself are available through the Molloy webshop here.

Jamie and I would like to thank Kieran and Shaun for their hospitality. We’ll definitely be back. Though this time I’m bringing an actual map. 

Photography: Jamie Ferguson @jfk_man

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Tony H

This might be quite off-piste, but:

On our last few driving holidays in the UK, we used an ordinance map app, rather than Google or a sat nav, and it was wonderful.

Maps are great at firing up your imagination, and understanding where you are – and if you’ve got one that shows you where you are all the time, well…

OTOH, they’re not very good at showing you which if the tiny dirt roads is the right one to get where you want to go.

James

Thanks Simon, lovely article and you capture Donegal wonderfully. I love Donegal tweed and have a few sports jackets made from it. Can I please ask if there is a Donegal tweed that you would recommend for a suit – I think I have read here before that you don’t generally recommend tweed for trousers.

MB

If you’re based in London then I should note that A&S used to have some Donegal tweed trousers (and, given the vast amount of variety, I suspect they still do). I bought a pair a few years ago when I got somewhat overexcited in the store and confirm that they are quite difficult to pair with other items (although look lovely when you do so successfully).
Not sorry I bought them but wish I’d done so later as more basics would have been better initially!

James

Thanks MB and yes, the A&S trousers I have seen partly drove the inspiration here. Fully understand the potential issues but i actually wear a pair of houndtooth trousers relatively frequently and quite like that they are a little different providing you pair them well as you both say – fully accept this is very personal but I find patterned trousers a little more interesting than other choices and is one of the reasons I have never really bonded with grey flannels.

James

And apologies Simon, I forget to say thank you for your advice. Best wishes, J

Gilles

Even though I would agree Harris Tweed isn’t particularly suitable for trousers, Donegal is much stiffer and from my point of view works well for trousers. I have a 3 pieces’ suit in a beautiful Molloy & Sons’ donegal (ref. 0701 122, precisely) which I am very happy with. Same comment about my brown Abraham Moon donegal suit.

Nicolas

This is maybe rather far from the subject but I wanted to take the opportunity to thank you for this site and all your articles. They had been informative, interesting and good moral comfort especially during the last 2 years.

Ed

Hear, hear. I couldn’t agree more

Rogey

Great writing and I loved the atmospheric photography. Count me as a fan of tweed trousers. I tend to run cold and I always take a pair with me to Scotland. I do not find them difficult to pair with other things. True, maybe they can be difficult to wear with a patterned sports jacket, but with a plain jacket, or a heavy sweater and an overcoat, I am supremely warm. They have their own drape, but I find it part of their charm.

Burt

Interesting read, thank you!
Would the Molloy & Sons tweed qualify for suiting then, as it is rather heavy?

Burt

Thank you, Simon 🙂

Jack Williams

Simon,

I have a Donegal tweed three-piece suit made for me by Rizzos Tailors in Cambridge MA in the early 80’s. It is rather subtle, like the Molloy 0701-54. I wear it a lot and have had it altered over the years. As I seem to be attending a lot of funerals these days, I find its rich texture and closeness to the earth a welcome respite from a room full of black. I wear the jacket and pants with a bow tie for less formal occasions and the pants alone work well with sweaters (jumpers) and flannel shirts. The pants are fully lined. And the suit has lasted 50 years with no sign of wear.
With maps, one always knows where one is – and consequently who one is. Google and other digital aids show you where to go (usually) but never the full context. And as you have said many times, context is everything. A wonderful article and great images. Someday you should do an article about the influence of landscapes (and climate) on cloth and its colors, textures and uses.
Jack

Joseph Oschrin

What a great post. The trip alone made it worthwhile and then the wonderousness of the mill was the cherry on the sundae.

Eugene

One of my favorite articles in a while. I really enjoyed the suspenseful mood you struck at the beginning. Also, it reminded me of traveling in Ireland with my wife before we had kids. I remember it being so lush and green, but always a bit dreary in the morning with some fog/mist. I was struck by the hedgerows in particular, something that we don’t have in the US – and how they were used to hem in sheep and even cows. Barbed wire is so much less attractive.

Christopher

Dear Simon, I am an irregular reader of the following magazine. This year they have their 10th anniversary and the English edition is for free online. There are some interesting articles, for example about pubs in London and about the Clutch cafe. I thought it may be a good idea to spread the word and it may be of interest for some of your readers.

Best regards from Köln
Christopher

https://epaper.theheritagepost.com/frontend/getcatalog.do?catalogId=260503&catalogVersion=2&lang=de

Gary Mitchell

Thanks for that! Enjoyed this mornings read.
Gary

Hristo (STEMESO Socks)

I am a huge fan of Molloy and Sons.
Gianfrancesco Musella made for me a jacket in a Molloy donegal back in 2014.

Kuber

Great article, and love the tone of the photos. Grew up in Ballymena/Belfast in the 90s/2000s but it’s been a good few years since I’ve been back.
I swear everyone I knew had a holiday home somewhere in Donegal – wish I knew about the factories back then!
Now in Phoenix, AZ and I certainly miss the lush, green hills. And a 4 hour drive is nothing here!

Sebastian

Hi Simon. I will be in the Donegal area this coming weekend and will have some down time on Friday. Would love to visit a workshop or perhaps simply visit a store with a good array of woven products. Anywhere in particular that you would recommend? Much obliged.

sebastian

Many thanks Simon. Will let you know if I stumble across anything interesting.