For many people around the world, the very word Donegal is synonymous with yarn: the uniquely speckled, colorful stuff known as Donegal tweed. I still remember my first Donegal tweed sweater. Received as a gift when I was in junior high school, it was a deep shade of fuchsia, strewn with confetti-like flecks of turquoise, lime and peach. The sweater was toothsome in texture, with bits of dried vegetation caught in the fibers, and it absolutely fascinated me. As a girl living in coastal New England, I can remember standing on the beach near my parents’ house and trying to look out across the water to where I imagined Ireland to be. What kind of a mad, magical place produced such a garment?
Twenty years later, fate determined that I should find out.
Now in my fifth year living—and knitting—here, I would like to share what my stunning adoptive home has to offer to knitters and lovers of fiber.
Dramatic of landscape and epic of weather, Donegal is Ireland’s north-westernmost county. (See map at the end of this article.) It is coastal, boggy, sparsely populated, and isolated, severed from neighboring lands by a string of mountain ranges.
Donegal is also quite vast and sprawled-out. So grab your waterproofs and sunscreen (the phrase “four seasons in a day” is on point), and be sure to make your Knitter’s Weekend a long weekend or, better yet, a full week.
First Things First: Yarn
To begin, let’s head straight for the main attraction: the tweed!
Amazingly, all Donegal tweed yarn that is sold around the world, under various labels, is produced in one tiny village. Located on southern Donegal’s Muckross Head Peninsula, the village of Kilcar is basically a crossroads. There is a pub, a couple of shops. And, of course, the spinning mills.
There are two tweed mills in Kilcar. The Donegal Wool Spinning Company (DWS) is a substantially sized factory that handles large-scale yarn production. Directly beside them, Studio Donegal is set up for smaller-scale runs. The latter also contains weaving facilities, a tailoring workshop, and a showroom displaying both mills’ products.
The Studio Donegal showroom has regular opening hours, and you can visit it without an appointment. There, you can buy everything from tweed garments and accessories, to traditional knitwear and locally made soaps.
But of course the main thing is the knitting yarn. There are walls and walls of it, stacked floor to ceiling. You can buy small amounts, or make wholesale purchases. The selection is dizzying, so prepare to spend hours on the premises, and bring a suitcase!
I should mention that Donegal tweed yarn does not imply a specific breed of sheep. The mills produce a variety of blends for yarn merchants around the world, made to client specifications, with fiber content that might include merino, silk, cashmere, even mohair.
The yarns they sell under their own labels fall mainly into one of two categories. The standard yarn is made of mixed mountain fleece and is reasonably soft, but with an undeniably rustic feel. The yarn labeled Soft Donegal is merino, so quite a bit sleeker and less lanolin-rich.
The Studio Donegal showroom sells yarn in 50g and 100g aran-weight skeins. In the larger DWS factory, the yarn can be purchased on 1kg cones, available in fingering weight only, and unscoured.
The spinning and dyeing facilities at both mills are captivating, and can be visited by appointment. Make arrangements in advance, and you will be given a terrific tour by the charismatic staff, complete with history lessons on Donegal’s tweed industry.
My favorite part? Seeing how the yarns get their famous colorful flecks, and learning the secret of how this practice began. (I wouldn’t want to ruin the magic by telling you about it here, so you’ll just have to visit yourself to find out.)
Time for Some (Really) Fresh Air
After hours spent at the mills (don’t think you’ll get out of there sooner), you’ll be needing some fresh air. So procure snacks from the village shop and head to the stunning Slieve League.
Whether you hike (carefully) along the ridge, or simply sit and stare in awe with a flask of hot tea, this majestic cliff formation will leave you teary-eyed, and with a visceral understanding of the landscape that inspires the color and hardiness of Donegal tweed yarns.
Overwhelmed with fatigue and hunger, you will at this point require food, drink, and rest. The best place for all three is the lively village of Ardara, 15 miles down the road. Head straight into Nancy’s pub for some excellent food, proper Guinness, live music, and the sort of memorable encounters you’ll be telling people about for years.
At the end of the night, make your way uphill (with advance bookings) to the inimitable Green Gate. If the proprietress offers you a night cap, accept. Then collapse upon a tweed-covered straw mattress in this otherworldly bed-and-breakfast. You’ll enjoy the panoramic views in the morning.
The Weaving Tour
For those interested in weaving, a longer stay in southern Donegal is a must, for this is the weaving heartland of Ireland.
Stroll through the main street of Ardara and visit the workshops of Eddy Doherty, Molloy & Sons, and Triona. There were once many more, but alas, times are changing. These remaining iconic weavers have decades of experience and are happy to share insights into the local textile history. You can also buy cloth by the meter, as well as finished garments and accessories, from their shops.
If you are up for venturing further afield, visit also the New Guard of hand weavers.
On the scenic St. John’s Point peninsula, Cyndi Graham creates intricate floral motifs in her seaside thatched cottage.
While in Donegal Town, stop in with Mr. McGinty at the cozy and cavernous Wool’n Things Yarn Shop.
Then nip into one of the town’s excellent coffee shops for refreshments, before checking out the Magee factory store, one of the best known names in ready-to-wear Donegal tweed. If you dream of a gorgeously tailored tweed coat straight from Donegal, this is the place.
Now that you are outfitted in tweed, where else would you lay down your head for the night but at Lough Eske Castle?
This intriguing 17th century structure has had a storied past. In its latest incarnation, the castle is a popular and lovely hotel. The architecture (and glorious fish fountain) alone are worth a visit, as are the walking and cycling trails around the lake. There is also an excellent tea room open to the public.
History and Beauty (and More Tweed)
The next day, head northwest to the picturesque village of Dunlewy. There, the Heritage Centre runs an excellent educational program on the cottage industry aspects of Donegal’s spinning, knitting, and weaving history.
(To see more details, and learn the story of the Wool and Sheep Quilt pictured above, see the author’s post here.)
The in-depth presentation delves into local political history, including the Famine and the Donegal Sheep War.
While you are in the area, a visit to Glenveagh National Park is a must.
Lose yourself in the surrounding beauty as you walk through this mossy, heavily forested wonderland, hidden in plain sight amidst boglands. Then enjoy lunch and tea at the Glenveagh Castle and Gardens in the heart of the park. Don’t shy away from their delicious pastries either. That walk is exhausting and you will need nourishment for the way back!
If you still have reserves of energy, be sure to stop at the Glebe Gallery, down the road in Church Hill.
There, a surprising collection of modern art and original William Morris upholstery awaits. The staff delights at welcoming fiber enthusiasts, and will be happy to give you a private tour of this unique establishment, with all the historical details you can handle. (Did I mention William Morris? They allowed me to touch one of the chairs!)
Hugging the scenic coastline, head north through the village of Downings, with a stop at McNutt’s, makers of the softest Donegal blankets and scarves available. Then enjoy an unforgettable overnight at the Fanad Lighthouse.
Of Course There Are Spinning Wheels
Continuing further north, aim for the town of Carndonagh on the Inishowen peninsula and visit master builder of spinning wheels, Johny Shiels.
A third generation wheel builder, Johny is famous throughout Ireland and beyond. He is as happy to build bespoke wheels, drop spindles and carding combs, as he is to teach spinning to individuals and groups. Tour his workshop, watch him at work, or spin together, while enjoying stories of Inishowen’s fiber history. His yarn, handspun from local fleeces and naturally dyed, is available for sale.
At Last: Knitting
Finally, route your return trip through the town of Ballybofey and stop by the studio of Edel MacBride.
Donegal’s star knitwear designer, Edel MacBride has also recently launched Knitfield, a project aiming to “get Ireland knitting again.”
It’s an admirable goal, and perhaps an apt note on which to end this photo essay. Because for all its rich fiber history, you will not see many signs of knitting in Donegal these days. As elsewhere, the craft declined steadily through several decades. Unlike elsewhere, however, the pendulum has not quite begun to swing back just yet. But here is hoping.
As I knit my own Donegal tweed garments today, I can’t help but recall that fuchsia sweater of my teenage years and the way it ignited my imagination. Donegal is truly a magical place. I hope that some day you might journey here, and be as inspired as I have been.