Two days in Donegal

I am designing a few things at the moment with a yarn that is new to me. I really like this yarn – and surely the best way to find out some more about it was to visit the place where it is made? So, on Friday, Mel and I took a trip to Donegal.

The yarn is a 2 ply light aran (US worsted weight) called “Soft Donegal”. It is “soft” because its yarn base is an Australian Merino – and it is “Donegal” because it is processed with the colourful neps, burrs, or flecks that are a familiar characteristic of Donegal tweed. The processing and the end-product are what is traditionally “Donegal” about this yarn. It is manufactured by Donegal Yarns, and distributed by Studio Donegal.

(Tathams of Rochdale carding machine at Studio Donegal. I hail from Rochdale, and always like to spot their machines in a mill.)

I have visited quite a few mills, but this first time I’d seen a fully vertical operation – that is, a mill where all of the processing stages from raw wool to finished yarn are effected in-house.

(Francis introduces Mel to the raw wool.)

Donegal Yarns dye the wool. They mix the dyed colours into beautiful, complex shades; they add the neps (the tweedy flecks) and the wool then goes through several stages of carding and condensing before it begins to resemble what we’d call a ‘single’.

Different stages of spinning, tying, washing, drying and skeining follow before the yarn is finally ready to leave the mill as balls or cones.

Thanks to Francis, the production manager at Donegal Yarns, Mel and I learned all about the operation — as well as many things we didn’t know about yarn processing.

This machine closely resembles a giant pair of human legs and feet — it ensures the colour is evenly distributed through the dye-vats and is appropriately called a “stamper.”

Wool shades are mixed with tweedy “neps” by being repeatedly blown about together in an amazing fleecy snowstorm . . .

. . . the Scotch Feed (invented by Henry Brown of Selkirk in 1844) puts a nifty twist into “woollen” processed yarns, turning and realigning the carded wool in preparation for the next stage.

I am often stunned by the fit-for-purpose ingenuity of textile machinery and the tape condenser (invented in the 1870s) is particularly ingenious. The efficient transformation of carded wool into fine ribbons relies entirely on the slightly-sticky properties of the fibres.

Francis was so knowledgable and enthusiastic and very tolerant of our yarn-related ravings. (Thanks, Francis!)

(a badly out-of-focus shot captures Mel’s rapturous reaction to the end product at Donegal Yarns)

The following day we visited Tristan Donaghy at Studio Donegal, just around the corner from the mill. As well as distributing Donegal Yarns for hand-knitting, Tristan runs his own small and highly-skilled manufacturing operation, producing unique hand-woven cloths which are used to create beautiful home furnishing fabrics, together with a small range of clothing.

What Tristan doesn’t know about Donegal tweed probably isn’t worth knowing. He was extremely generous both with his time and knowledge, and Mel and I came away feeling we had learned an enormous amount.

We saw unspun sliver being woven directly into boucle fabric for a textured effect . . .

. . . we found out about leno and tuck selvedges . . .

. . . we learned all about the different processes involved in finishing a hand-woven scarf or blanket (adding a rolled fringe is much more complex than you might think!)

And then we went outside to explore our surroundings, and let all we’d seen sink in.

(Me, the BMC, and the Maghera waterfall)

We could immediately see the material connection between the yarns and textiles we’d been admiring, and the beautiful landscape of Donegal.

Such an inspiring weekend! Thankyou Chris, Francis, and Tristan! Now it is time for me to get busy with those needles. . .

* You can buy Donegal Yarns directly from Studio Donegal, or from stockists like This is Knit.
* Read more about Donegal Yarns and Studio Donegal in Carol Feller’s super book, Contemporary Irish Knits


This is Knit has its home in the Powerscourt Centre – a place that strongly reminded me of what the Corn Exchange in Manchester used to be like in the 1980s (ie, when it was a happy mecca of independent retailing, rather than just another anonymous mall). In the English North, such places tend to spring up in the ruins of Victorian industry, but the Powerscourt Centre began life as a Georgian townhouse, at its heyday during the years of Grattan’s Parliament. The architecture and stuccowork are still impressive — the Powerscourts clearly liked to spend the season entertaining in considerable style.

In the present era, when multinational capitalism has reduced the world of goods to a dull, mass-produced uniformity, I found it rather heartening that all but two of the numerous businesses in the Powerscourt Centre are independents. There are local fashion designers, florists, antique dealers, nice wee cafes like The Pepperpot, and a number of places to please anyone interested in craft and design.

This is Knit is top of the list, of course. One of the many nice things about the shop is how it supports other Irish yarny businesses. There you will find tempting skeins from the Dublin Dye Company . . .

. . . and Laura Hogan

. . .as well as the work of talented designers, such as crocheter Aoibhe Ni Shuilleabhain .

I love Aiobhe’s shawl designs – which are nifty and elegant in a way these pictures do not do justice. Above you see the picoted edge of Honeymeade, and Aiobhe’s shoulders wearing Snapdragon.

Round the corner from This is Knit is Article, where you can find Anouk Jansen’s cups, Bold and Noble’s prints, and Rob Ryan’s all-sorts-of-things, as well as throws and blankets from the lovely folk at Studio Donegal.

But my own personal find has to be A Rubenesque, on the ground floor of the Centre . . .

I have a mild addiction to trim and ribbons, evidenced in a large and ever-expanding stash (perhaps I shall show you the boxes one day). Here, I was in ribbon heaven.

I don’t know about you, but in me, haberdashery induces a ridiculous excitement that I really don’t feel in any other sort of store. . .

(beaded trim! oh, my!)

. . . perhaps this is because there are so few good haberdashers about. Anyway, A Rubenesque struck me as a very good one indeed. Not only is the range of trim and ribbons vast and well-selected, but the store also has a pop-up showcasing the work of local textile designers. . .

. . and it is one of just a few places where you can still buy traditional lace, hand-made by the talented lacemakers of Clones in County Monaghan.

Did I come away with something? Yes, of course I did.

Ahem. Time to excavate the ribbon stash again . . .

holiday snaps

I rather enjoyed being a tourist in Ireland. Here are some of the touristy highlights . . . and a few lowlights of our trip.

Best local produce

Without a doubt, the culinary highlight was the wild smoked salmon at the Connemara smokehouse. The lowlight was Irish beer, or rather, the singular lack thereof. As I no longer drink (booze bad for an injured brain), this was more of a concern for Tom than me, but I shared the disappointment when we spent half a day driving to a microbrewery we had heard tell of . . .which had actually closed down.

Best tourist experience: Doagh Famine Village

I confess that we ended up here because it was a very rainy day, and the entrance price included a cup of tea (a genius touch), but the place was an unexpected delight. It is hard to explain exactly why the Doagh Famine Village is so good without spoiling its many surprises . . . but I do recommend a visit if you are ever on the Inishowen Peninsula (which is, by the way, a lovely spot). I would describe Doagh as an ‘attraction’ whose ostensible purpose is to celebrate the culture and resourcefulness of the people of Northern Donegal. It succeeds in this aim admirably, but what makes it all the more interesting is the way that the ‘village’ has expanded beyond its original remit (and boundaries) in an enthusiastic attempt to represent All Irish History and Culture at All Times . . Ever. This, of course, is a totally impossible task, but it is a laudable one, and the way history is presented is actually refreshingly original when compared to many official (ie, publicly funded) ‘heritage’ attractions. I think what I really liked about Doagh was that it had a Point of View and it wasn’t afraid to make it. Where else could you find a display about absentee eighteenth-century English landlords tellingly juxtaposed with a critique of the apricot-coloured holiday mansions that one sees everywhere in Donegal? At times, these idiosyncrasies do tip over into the faintly absurd – nowhere more so than in what I can only describe as The Peace Process House of Fun. Here, the unsuspecting visitor suppresses their claustrophobia and navigates their way around a republican safe house, locating several ‘hidden’ rooms, until they find Ian Paisley and Jerry Adams sitting down together. I couldn’t quite believe it was real . . . but it really was. Curiously, Tom and I seemed to be the only ones who found the discovery of former prime-ministers behind fireplaces and wardrobes hysteria-inducing . . .

. . .but there you go. The tea, when it came, was a proper cup of tea and it was served with jam and bread. Brilliant! I heartily recommend Doagh. It has to be seen to be believed.

Worst tourist experience
This is a tie between two places. The first is the Glenveagh National Park. We popped in at the park’s well-appointed visitor centre to find an OS map of the area so that we could go for a walk. Now, you might think that a place whose business it is to promote the outdoors would be the perfect place to find a map. You would be wrong. The gift shop had novelty sheep and leprechauns a-plenty – but no OS maps. In fact, there were no maps of the area there at all. Confused, we asked at the ‘information desk’ for ‘information’ – could we buy a map – any map of the area? We could not. There were no maps to be had. We were then told that, if we wanted maps, we should go and look on the internet. The internet! I really wanted to say: “Look, we are standing right here in front of you, in your visitor centre, dressed in our walking gear, asking for a map, so that we can just go for a walk in your national park. ” But we are British, so we politely replied “Oh, right, we see. Thankyou.” and left the building. It seems, at Glenveagh, that the great Irish outdoors is only to be enjoyed if you pay several euro to be shipped out to it on a bus, and access it as part of a pre-packaged ‘nature experience’.

I would still recommend visiting Glenveagh, as the landscape is spectacular, and clearly very well-managed. But one place I would not recommend in any capacity is the Leenane Sheep and Wool centre. If you are a child, or the parent of one, and know nothing at all about sheep or fibre, then you might spend a fun couple of hours here. If you are a knitter, spinner, weaver – or anyone with any sort of interest in textiles – then I really wouldn’t bother. The best thing I can say about this place is that I learned a few things I did not know about the development and extinction of some breeds of Irish sheep. But I had come hoping to find out a little more about the weaving industry in this part of Ireland, and I was sorely disappointed. I learnt very little about Leenane tweed, and nothing at all about what distinguished it as a cloth. In one room, ‘Irish’ dyeing was illustrated with some skeins of Scottish yarn, and the whole experience was accompanied by not one but two competing soundtracks of ‘Irish’ music that made it impossible to concentrate. And then there was the usual, predictable gubbins about “each knitted stitch” of an Aran sweater “having its own meaning.” Here I lost patience. It costs 5 euro to be peddled this rubbish. I would not waste your money.

Best Yarn: Studio Donegal

As in some parts of Scotland, Ireland abounds with woollen ‘mills’ that are not, and purveyors of ‘traditional crafts’ which turn out to be sweaters mass-produced in the far east. Down with this sort of thing! At Studio Donegal, one breathes a happy sigh of relief. There is a strong sense of the area’s textile history in Kilcar, but Studio Donegal is very clearly a working business, not a heritage centre. There is a workroom with some fabulous old looms where you can see Donegal Tweed being woven – and, here you are watching working weavers, not a ‘demonstration’ or ‘performance’ of weaving. Downstairs is a shop filled with lovely woolly stuff made by the folk upstairs.

There are beautiful wraps and throws and blankets. I was particularly drawn to the two-colour graphic designs, which strongly reminded me of Latvian weaving styles.

All very nice, I hear you say, but is there yarn?

Indeed there is – spun for Studio Donegal just round the corner at Donegal Yarns – and lovely stuff it is too. In fact, if the Veedon Fleece is to be found anywhere in Ireland, I think it might be in Kilcar. While I was enjoying myself at Studio Donegal, Tom and Bruce went for a walk around the village. They were joined by a nonchalant lamb, who walked out of someone’s front door, insisted on making friends with Bruce, having its head rubbed by Tom, and pootling happily along with them. I did not see FRIENDLAMB – and indeed did not hear about it until we were back on the road (badTomandBruce)- but it has already become the stuff of myth.

Best camping spot

Camping in the wazzwaggon was lots of fun – to say that Bruce loves it is a total understatement – and we surprised ourselves by going ‘wild’ the whole way. We stayed in some truly wonderful places, and only had to share a spot with other campers on one occasion. We are keeping our favourite favourite to ourselves, but Malin Head definitely comes a close second.


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