Southwest Donegal has a long tradition of textile production. The availability of wool, a local resource, has combined in the past with the need to supplement meagre farm incomes, resulting in small-scale production. This textile tradition formed the basis of a number of economic development initiatives, beginning with the founding of Donegal Carpets in Killybegs in 1898 by Scottish textile manufacturer Alexander Morton. A weaving factory was opened in Kilcar as part of a British government initiative through the Congested Districts Board (Why Donegal, 2015).
The knitwear factory in Kilcar - which you read about in the article 'Industrial development in Southwest Donegal: Textile production, 1983' - established through local private capital by James Doogan, has gone. The knitting co-operative in Glencolmcille closed in the 1990s, partly due to the high costs of acquiring new machinery, but also due to changing tastes as people wanted lighter garments. However, although Fr McDyer’s cooperative closed, people took inspiration from this initiative, and there are a number of textile producers offering employment in the area.
At present (2015), there are about 150 jobs in the woollen industry in Kilcar, provided by a number of different employers including Studio Donegal, Botany Weaving, Fisherman out of Ireland and the Údarás spinning mill, originally Gaeltarra Eireann, but renamed Donegal Yarns in 2008 to “reflect the increased internationalization of the customer base” (Donegal Yarns, nd).
The textile industry in the area continues to evolve. Carnaween Clothing is a new private company which has located in Malinmore, in an advance factory which was built by Údarás na Gaeltachta more than a decade ago. The cloth is sourced from a handweaver in Ardara, from Tipperary, and from England. It employs about eight local women, while the owner and manager travel in from Donegal town. The products have been showcased in Dublin and in the USA, once again demonstrating the range of linkages which continue to develop over time.
Building on the textiles heritage in the area, Dublin-based Botany Weaving has established a modern warping plant in Kilcar as part of its operations. This family-owned business has become one of the largest aircraft seat fabric manufacturers in the world, working with over 120 of the world's leading airlines. This is a very specialised product due to the safety requirements of the aircraft industry. Yarn is brought to Kilcar to make the warps, then transported back to Dublin at night to be woven on the Jacquard looms there, and then the woven cloth is brought back to Kilcar for finishing. During this finishing stage, a flame retardant is applied to the extremely exacting aircraft standards. All the major airlines have visited the Kilcar factory to inspect the standards of finishing. Specialised airline carpets are now also being manufactured the state-of-the-art factory in Southwest Donegal, once again demonstrating both uniqueness and interdependence.
Donegal Carpet Factory
Uniqueness and interdependence are also evident in nearby Killybegs, where a heritage centre situated in the former carpet factory attracts tourists to see ‘the largest hand-knotted loom in the world’ as well as one of the original carpets produced in the Donegal Carpet Factory. These unique and exclusive products have been enjoyed worldwide, in establishments such as Dublin Castle, the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, Eltham Palace, and the U.S. White House. The centre claims to be the only place in Western Europe where hand-knotted carpets are still made, using the same Canadian pitch-pine looms that produced carpets for Queen Victoria more than a century ago (Why Donegal, 2015).
Fishermen Out of Ireland
Making a virtue out of their uniqueness, a number of Southwest Donegal’s textile producers retain their small scale, but are able compete on a world stage because they have something very specific to offer. As the Fisherman Out of Ireland website puts it ‘We might be situated on the edge of Europe in the middle of ‘nowhere’ but we export 70% of everything we make to the four corners of the globe.’ (Fisherman Out of Ireland, nd)
Rossan Knitwear, established by the McNelis family in 1984, is another such enterprise. The garments are now hand-knitted using yarn from Kilcar and sold at craft fairs and in the shop, Glencolmcille Woollen Mill, as well as online. Although a relatively small-scale producer, they link to the wider world, offering a unique product. Their brochure advertises their location on the Wild Atlantic Way, and tourist facilities including ample parking and tax-free shopping for non-EU visitors.
Tristan Donaghy of Studio Donegal explains that the company was started by his father who was a handweaver and still works there. Their focus is on well-designed, good quality, hand-woven clothing. The enterprise combines a tourism element which emphasises their uniqueness. As the only mill making a tweed jacket where all the processes take place in Donegal, he notes that ‘visitors love to see the weaving and see it is really made here’. Indeed, although the products are sold the world over, Tristan notes that he doesn’t travel for sales, instead ‘the world travels to us’ (Studio Donegal, 2011).
Now move on to read about A new layer: Population in Southwest Donegal in 2015.
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See all the series in the Change in the West of Ireland collection
This article is part of a collection on the 'Uniqueness, Interdependence, Uneven Development and Change in the West of Ireland'. To find out more about the collection, a good place to start is the introduction, Change in the West of Ireland.