Our friends Shawn & Kieran Molloy, of Molloy & Sons, are featured in this very short, very lovely piece by filmmakers Jamie Delaney and Keith Nally. This is what happens when you send a professional instead of a dumb blogger with a camera phone.
Donegal Tweed at Molloy & Sons
I just got back from a visit to the UK and Ireland, and one of the highlights was a sidetrip to Donegal, and the two-man woolen mill operated by Shaun Molloy and his son Kieran.
Donegal’s in the northwest corner of the Emerald Isle, and it’s known for its distinctive tweed. Donegal tweed is easy to pick out from other styles - its hallmark is the nubby flecks of color in the weave. Fabrics that may look like one color on the surface reveal a rainbow when you get in closer. It’s a look that’s been sought after for a couple hundred years now.
Shaun and Kieran come from generations of weavers. Shaun’s father, John, founded a woolen mill in the mid-20th century, but over the years that mill has gone from making tweed to making knits almost exclusively.
A couple of years ago, Kieran brought an industrial design degree back home, and he and his father decided to take the tweed-making equipment out of mothballs and start up a tiny artisinal weaving company. They called it Molloy & Sons.
The Molloy archive of patterns stretches back into the 60s, and the pattern has to be transformed from a swatch on the page into a pallette and a set of instructions.
The process of making tweed starts with dyed wool. It’s processed into yarn in Donegal, according to the Molloy’s specifications.
Then, that yarn is taken from its spools to a huge de-spooling machine, which sets it up to be woven. (All of these machines, by the way, are forty-plus years old.) When I was there, they were working on a fabric with a pretty simple color scheme (for a company whose name rhymes with “day shoe”), but for more colorful fabrics, every color has to be in exactly the right place.
Once the yarn’s unspooled, the Molloys program the weaving pattern into the big mechanical loom. Believe it or not, they do it with punchcards.
The long threads that go through the machine are called the warp. The machine’s job is to lift these up and down while shuttling through the weft yarn, which weaves over and under, back and forth, so fast you it doesn’t even show up in video.
The flecks, which you can see even in this black-and-white pattern, come from wool that’s been washed and felted before it’s spun into yarn. Because little bits of color are felted and don’t stretch out, they just glob onto the yarn like bubble gum on a piano string.
The flecks are a built in defect, in a way. Because they’re so unpredictable, the machine runs at a quarter the speed it would if it were weaving a plain worsted wool, like you might see in a suit at Macy’s. Shaun and Kieran have to keep a constant eye on things, tending to these imperfections as they come along.
Once the fabric comes out of the machine, they load it onto a huge roller, and run it through to check for problems. Their goal is to make a product that’s perfectly imperfect.
Weaving used to be one of Donegal’s largest industries, but today it’s almost gone. Unlike Harris & Lewis, where Harris Tweed is made, there are no trade protections for Donegal Tweed. Anyone can call anything “Donegal Tweed.” If you see a tweed in the store in a Donegal style, it was most likely woven on the cheap in China or Italy.
When Shaun and Kieran started making tweed again, there was only one tweed mill left in Donegal. Their factory, if you can call it that, sits just a few steps from the house where Kieran grew up… and where his father Shaun was raised. Something like half a dozen generations of weavers have lived there, in fact.
These guys aren’t quaint, and they’re not museum pieces for tourists to gawk at. They’re two sharp businessmen determined to develop a craft that has helped define who they were, who their families were, and what their home is. I think that’s pretty spectacular.
A few photos from my recent trip to Molloy & Sons, a father-son tweed mill in Ardara, County Donegal, Ireland. I put together a little video slideshow deal that you’ll find here tomorrow morning.
This is Sean and Kieran Molloy, two generations of a Donegal tweed weaving tradition that goes back many more. Kieran’s grandfather (Sean’s father) John Molloy started a tweed mill in Donegal, on the west coast of the northernmost part of the Republic of Ireland, fifty or so years ago. John was already a fourth- or fifth-generation weaver.
Over the years, John Molloy’s business moved further and further away from weaving and towards knits, so Sean and Kieran started Molloy & Sons to make the traditional Donegal tweeds that the family had always woven. The factory sits in two barns, one new and one old, on land that has been used by Molloys for weaving for more than a century, a few steps from the house where both Sean and Kieran were reared. Above, Sean and Kieran are standing in front of their warehouse, a converted community theater.
I spent a wonderful morning with the Molloys today, touring their modest two-man operation and learning about how tweed is made. Donegal tweed is a distinctive and remarkable form of the fabric, but it isn’t protected by trade law as Harris Tweed is. This has meant that cheap Chinese and Italian knock-offs have pushed the industry in Donegal to the brink of disappearance. There are only two commercial tweed mills left in Donegal - the venerable (and sizable) Magee and these two fellas: Molloy & Sons. There’s a recession bordering on depression in Ireland at the moment, and these two gifted craftsmen (and sharp businessmen) are fighting for a future for a textile tradition that their family has guarded for hundreds of years.
I’ll have a fuller writeup of my visit to Kieran and Sean’s shop when I’m back in the States, but for now, check out these brave guys and their wonderful firm.
Here’s how it works: you send us a picture of some Irish farmers looking fresh to death. We post it.