Inside a Donegal tweed mill
Although established in 1950, it’s only in the last ten years that McNutt of Donegal has focused on homewares and they now produce items in tweed, linen, lambswool and cashmere. William McNutt shares how it all began…
My father worked in his mother’s shop in the 1940s, mostly selling tweed clothing to passing tourists. He felt there was an opening to make the tweed locally so he spent two winters in Galashiels in Scotland studying textiles. Once he came back, he convinced handweavers from just south of us in Ardara to move to Downings, and the first handlooms went into production in 1950. Now, there are 18 members of staff working in the mill full time and McNutt is sold across every continent.
In the 1970s we transitioned to power looms, which allowed us to weave much finer fabrics. Soon after, Donegal tweed was very much in demand from the major fashion houses in Europe. John McNutt, William’s cousin, was the designer at the time had a great ability to predict the trends and coming up with a fresh angle on it, and it was noticed in Paris and Milan. He really helped McNutt put on the international stage. When I was young, there was a steady stream of designers travelling to Downings to collaborate, but the world of high fashion is a very fickle one, the way trends move so quickly.
Herringbone is a classic. In the early days, all fabrics were woven for clothing so they were often more rigid and do not translate that well into the softness required for accessories like throws and blankets that are popular now. However, the traditional herringbone weave transitions well and so have survived the test of time.
All our tweed yarns are spun in Donegal, our super-soft lambswool comes from Yorkshire and the cashmere yarn is from Italy. Once it arrives at the mill, the first process is to make the warp, which is transferring the cones of yarn onto a weaver’s beam. Next, the weaver's beam goes to the loom where the main transformation takes place. Each loom is set up to weave different thread density and different yarns. After weaving, we make the tassels for the fringes. The fabric is then washed to make it lovely and soft and finally it is cut to make the individual scarves and throw. Then labels are sewn on and we are ready to ship out to stores.
A heritage company still has modern responsibilities. While the process of weaving is still essentially the same as it was when we started out hand weaving, technology allows for innovation and speed so it’s a very important part of the mill. We recently bought a single-end warper from Japan. It’s transformed our production of short runs of weave, allowing us to swap out the yarns and patterns with much more ease so we can broaden our blanket offering.