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The Weavers of Donegal
In Donegal, hand-weaving is a skill that has been passed down for centuries through many generations. In the old days, many families lived by hand-spinning and hand-weaving cloth in their homes. The crofters wife made brews of moss and lichen into which to dip and dye the pure new wool from the household sheep. Her husband would then weave the unique family product into cloth to be sold at the tweed market.
According to Colm Sweeney of the Ardara Heritage Centre, "When you buy a yard of Donegal tweed, it's not just a yard, it's a lot of Irish history you're buying.
Mr. Sweeney grew up in southwest Co. Donegal and learned to weave on his father's loom before he was 13. He heard stories of how his father's father (and his father before him) raised sheep for wool, how his wife spun the wool into yarn and, after harvest, the farmer came in from the field to warp his loom and begin a winter of weaving tweeds for market.
Traditional wooden handlooms differ only slightly in design and operation from those used in biblical times. The loom is operated manually and the weaving may be described as passing the horizontal threads (called the weft) through the warp by means of a shuttle. Thread by thread and row by row, the weft is eased into place. Hand-wound weft is gently fitted into large wooden shuttles. The complicated permutations of colour and design are co-ordinated and interpreted as the weaver proceeds.
Vertical threads in a piece of tweed are called "the warp". These threads are wound carefully on a cylinder and every thread must be separate and in sequence. It is the warper who takes the first step in arranging the various colors to form a foundation upon which the weaver will, with almost magical skill, produce the pattern. Everything is done by hand. It can take even the best of weavers up to half a day to draw 1000 threads through the reed to form the warp to the age-old pattern.
A good weaver seated at a bench attached to a wood loom, coordinating hand and foot movements -- could produce up to 30 yards of fabric a day. He'd pack 60-foot lengths in wicker baskets, load them on his donkey's back and head for town on market day.
Today, most Donegal Tweed comes from the Magee, Molloy & McNutt factory power looms which yield 600 or more yards a day, but there are still about 25 local craftsmen working at home, turning out the all-wool, handwoven fabric that is treasured throughout the world. Local vans are a familiar sight along the winding roads of Donegal delivering warps and wefts to cottages scattered over a 40 mile radius.
"There's still a big demand for handwoven tweed jackets," says a company representative. He adds, "If you go to Magee's shop in Donegal Town, you're 100% guaranteed it's a handwoven tweed you're getting. Fashion designers Armani, Ralph Lauren and Henry White use Magee "Donegals" and the company has its own upscale John Magee Collection label.
One newspaper reporter put it into perspective when he suggested that a gentleman should think twice the next time he takes a look at his jacket sleeve. If its a tweed jacket from Magee of Donegal, there were probably 60 operations that went into its making.
Nowadays, the production line in the Magee clothing factory produces 3,600 sleeved garments a week. Design swatches the size of train tickets are transformed into vast bulks of raw woven cloth on high-tech looms, spun from a confusion of yarns. As the fabric emerges, each inch is inspected and mended and inspected again and then put though a labor of beatings: washed, dried, washed again, tugged, pressed to perfection and stored. Everywhere theres the smell of wet wool. Vast rows of color- coded cloth, tweeds, wool mixes, cotton and silk - about 600 cloths in all.
These extraordinary fabrics can be found in the most exalted palaces of fasion - on the walls of Ralph Lauren shops, for example, where mere wallpaper just wouldn't do. Own an Armani? It may have its origins in Donegal - not Milan; likewise your trusty Donna Karan number, your Burberry coat lining, lush Max Mara coat, slim Margaret Howell skirt or sharp Hugo Boss suit.
A new generation of buyers meanwhile, both Irish and international, is being lured by the design-led John Magee label. The tweed has a new twist. There are great, big funnelneck sweaters, slinky shift-dresses, drawstring trousers for the less-than-slinky, steed coats, long-line waistcoats and bolero jackets.
Back at the Magee Shop of Donegal - the red brick temple of tweed overlooking the Diamond in Donegal Town - staff members are dapper in perfectly tailored jackets fashioned from prized hand-woven fabrics.
Victor McKean, the store's general manager, said tourists come in to watch a weaving demonstration, then browse the merchandise, often taking home a tweed jacket as a souvenir of their visit.
While there are about 40 combinations of color and pattern available, he said the best selling fabric is traditional pepper'n salt/barleycorn. That's your father's -- and grandfather's -- black and white Donegal tweed. McKean said that "a really nice man's tweed jacket" would run about $200. Doesn't seem like a very high price to pay for a piece of Donegal history that locals swear will last forever.
Himself bought a Donegal Tweed jacket at Blarney Woolen Mills in Cork five years ago; it looks brand new even though it gets a lot of wear. (It's the only one he owns). He also recommends that one should always buy the hand-made article. The natural oils in the wool are not removed and that is why it retains its remarkable resistance to water. Irish hype? Not a bit of it - he can look like a drowned rat in a heavy rain - except for his Donegal Tweed jacket and cap. Photo to follow later.
While visiting Co. Donegal's weavers in person is by far the best way to view their wares, you can see what's on offer on the web or in brochures. Here are just a few of the best-known and/or up and coming venues where you can buy a wide range of hand-made or power-loomed tweed products:
"Irish Handwoven tweed, traditionally crafted, is acclaimed for its quality, individuality, versatility and colour blends. It is used in a wide range of clothing as well as soft furnishings."
Called whin in the north and gorse in the east, furze was once a symbol of wealth and fertility of land as is emphasized by the saying: "gold under furze, silver under rushes and famine under heather."
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March 4, 2011
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