Donegal Tweed At Molloy & Sons

November 21, 2011

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.