Two days in Donegal

I am designing a few things at the moment with a yarn that is new to me. I really like this yarn – and surely the best way to find out some more about it was to visit the place where it is made? So, on Friday, Mel and I took a trip to Donegal.

The yarn is a 2 ply light aran (US worsted weight) called “Soft Donegal”. It is “soft” because its yarn base is an Australian Merino – and it is “Donegal” because it is processed with the colourful neps, burrs, or flecks that are a familiar characteristic of Donegal tweed. The processing and the end-product are what is traditionally “Donegal” about this yarn. It is manufactured by Donegal Yarns, and distributed by Studio Donegal.

(Tathams of Rochdale carding machine at Studio Donegal. I hail from Rochdale, and always like to spot their machines in a mill.)

I have visited quite a few mills, but this first time I’d seen a fully vertical operation – that is, a mill where all of the processing stages from raw wool to finished yarn are effected in-house.

(Francis introduces Mel to the raw wool.)

Donegal Yarns dye the wool. They mix the dyed colours into beautiful, complex shades; they add the neps (the tweedy flecks) and the wool then goes through several stages of carding and condensing before it begins to resemble what we’d call a ‘single’.

Different stages of spinning, tying, washing, drying and skeining follow before the yarn is finally ready to leave the mill as balls or cones.

Thanks to Francis, the production manager at Donegal Yarns, Mel and I learned all about the operation — as well as many things we didn’t know about yarn processing.

This machine closely resembles a giant pair of human legs and feet — it ensures the colour is evenly distributed through the dye-vats and is appropriately called a “stamper.”

Wool shades are mixed with tweedy “neps” by being repeatedly blown about together in an amazing fleecy snowstorm . . .

. . . the Scotch Feed (invented by Henry Brown of Selkirk in 1844) puts a nifty twist into “woollen” processed yarns, turning and realigning the carded wool in preparation for the next stage.

I am often stunned by the fit-for-purpose ingenuity of textile machinery and the tape condenser (invented in the 1870s) is particularly ingenious. The efficient transformation of carded wool into fine ribbons relies entirely on the slightly-sticky properties of the fibres.

Francis was so knowledgable and enthusiastic and very tolerant of our yarn-related ravings. (Thanks, Francis!)

(a badly out-of-focus shot captures Mel’s rapturous reaction to the end product at Donegal Yarns)

The following day we visited Tristan Donaghy at Studio Donegal, just around the corner from the mill. As well as distributing Donegal Yarns for hand-knitting, Tristan runs his own small and highly-skilled manufacturing operation, producing unique hand-woven cloths which are used to create beautiful home furnishing fabrics, together with a small range of clothing.

What Tristan doesn’t know about Donegal tweed probably isn’t worth knowing. He was extremely generous both with his time and knowledge, and Mel and I came away feeling we had learned an enormous amount.

We saw unspun sliver being woven directly into boucle fabric for a textured effect . . .

. . . we found out about leno and tuck selvedges . . .

. . . we learned all about the different processes involved in finishing a hand-woven scarf or blanket (adding a rolled fringe is much more complex than you might think!)

And then we went outside to explore our surroundings, and let all we’d seen sink in.

(Me, the BMC, and the Maghera waterfall)

We could immediately see the material connection between the yarns and textiles we’d been admiring, and the beautiful landscape of Donegal.

Such an inspiring weekend! Thankyou Chris, Francis, and Tristan! Now it is time for me to get busy with those needles. . .

* You can buy Donegal Yarns directly from Studio Donegal, or from stockists like This is Knit.
* Read more about Donegal Yarns and Studio Donegal in Carol Feller’s super book, Contemporary Irish Knits