Even if you’ve never seen the rugged beauty of County Donegal, Ireland—green fields crisscrossed by stone walls, lit up with flashes of wildflowers in summer—with your own eyes, you’ll probably recognize Donegal tweed. These hardy wool yarns and handwovens evoke the landscape itself with their famous rainbow of colorful flecks on solid bases.
Generations of Tweed
Textile craft in Ireland dates back to the Neolithic Age, but tweed has been especially important in Donegal. In the late 1800s, locals used their generational knowledge of weaving to create textiles for sale in their own homes as a way to earn income in a region with poor soil and few jobs. This cottage economy was a mainstay of the area until the 1960s, when the Irish textile industry moved to machine-based production and individual weavers began to give up the trade. For Kevin and Wendy Donaghy, the loss of this generational knowledge was unthinkable, so in 1979 they began a venture to preserve the traditional methods of making Donegal tweed, setting up in the tiny village of Kilcar in County Donegal.
Today, the Donaghys’ vision is known as Studio Donegal and is headed by their son. Tristan Donaghy feels just as passionate about preserving Donegal tweed, which he describes as an “indigenous craft” of Ireland. Rather than trying to recreate the look of Donegal tweed on modern equipment, as many large textile factories have done, Tristan only uses heritage methods and equipment, much of which dates back to the Victorian era. All of Studio Donegal’s woven goods are produced by Tristan and a few other handweavers, who are actively training the next generation through apprenticeships.
Blending tweed flecks into solid-colored or heathered roving adds harmony to the colors of tweed and stabilizes the yarn fibers for spinning into yarn. Photo courtesy of Studio Donegal
Yarns Unlike Any Other
It was Studio Donegal’s knitting yarns, which are produced in close collaboration with a couple of small local mills, that caught the eye of Tina Johnston of Kokomo Yarns on a trip to Ireland several years ago. The vibrant colours of Studio Donegal’s flagship yarn, Aran Tweed, and its smooth, sturdy hand were unlike any tweed yarn she had ever come across before. The local sheep of Donegal, raised on mountainous terrain and sea cliffs, are adapted to the rugged climate and storms coming in off the northern Atlantic. Their long and sturdy fleeces make up each batch of Aran Tweed, and the yarn retains the fleece characteristics, making terrific sweaters, blankets, and outerwear. Each colorway is carefully planned to ensure the colored wool flecks—dyed in small batches and cut to precise size—bring out undertones or provide striking contrast with the base yarn.
Tina Johnston and Kelli Slack, owners of Kokomo Yarns, love bringing the authentic tweed yarns of Studio Donegal to knitters! Photo courtesy of Kokomo Yarns
By the end of the visit, Tina had decided that she would be the one to bring Studio Donegal yarns to North America, and the relationship between Studio Donegal and Kokomo Yarns was born. Kokomo—now a partnership between Tina and designer Kelli Slack—provides the full range of Studio Donegal yarns for North American retailers, from the original Aran Tweed that caught Tina’s eye to newer options such as tweed on a heathered base and yarns designed with contemporary knitting preferences in mind. Soft Donegal was the first all-Merino tweed yarn on the market, designed for knitters who want the look of tweed with next-to-skin softness. Even the flecks are pure Merino, eliminating any itch factor in the yarn. But in line with Studio Donegal’s ethos of working locally, Tristan opted to source the wool as close to home as possible, buying from Merino producers in Spain rather than Australia.
Kelli Slack designed the Beachcombing Shrug in Studio Donegal Darnie, a yarn that Kokomo Yarns helped develop with knitters in mind. Photo courtesy of Kokomo Yarns
Embracing Tradition for Modern Knitters
Working only with small local mills means that meeting the demands of contemporary knitters may take a little bit more R&D. Darnie is a fingering-weight 2-ply yarn conceived by the Kokomo team for use in socks, lace, and stranded colorwork. Tristan and one of his local mill collaborators experimented with different twist angles in the singles and plied yarn, considering the relationship to the staple length of the wool fibers and how to incorporate the much smaller fleck. In the end, Darnie took about four years from initial concept to final product, but the end result preserves the soft hand of the base while being resistant to pilling. “I think it’s a hidden gem in the yarn market,” says Kelli.
Keeping Small Producers at the Heart of Donegal Tweed
Want to get your hands on Donegal Tweed and try it for yourself? Tina and Kelli recommend that you ask your local yarn store to stock it. This supports the producers in Ireland as well as a small business in your community, harkening back to the days when tweed provided a livelihood for Donegal families. “When you buy Studio Donegal yarns, you’re supporting a network of small producers and their families,” says Tina. “It’s everyone from the sheep farmers, to the apprentice weavers, to the local yarn stores who carry Studio Donegal in the U.S.” Shop owners can find out more at kokomoyarns.com.
Leslie Ordal is a genetic counselor and academic based in Toronto, Ontario. She can often be seen knitting with her own handspun yarn during department meetings and has recently begun to spin her own embroidery thread, preferably dyed with locally foraged plants.