County Donegal is a remote territory of an island country, which in turn has been subject to the meddling of its more powerful island neighbor for their entire shared history. It is this combination of self-sufficient Irish survivalism and collateral impact of British development efforts that resulted in County Donegal’s greatest export, Donegal tweed.
Whereas much of the rest of Ireland grew flax and exported linen, it was sparsely grown in Donegal, the wind coming off of the Atlantic too biting for either the flax plant or linen clothing. Donegal being a rural environment populated by subsistence farmers, the entire wool-making process took place inside the home, rather than in factories.
The reliance on wool initially limited Donegal’s potential for growth through export. The British were happy to buy Irish linen, since they did not produce it themselves. But the British wool industry was large and powerful, and won government protections against the importation of cheaper Irish wool. Although Donegal tweed became sought after in other parts of Europe, high tariffs and outright bans on Irish wool impeded trade with England.
Since Irish wages were low and there was not yet demand for large-scale production, Donegal retained labor-intensive methods - all its tweed was dyed, spun, and woven at home, by hand, well into the 20th century. The flecks of color most associated with Donegal were dyed using lichen that grows wild in Donegal.
The Donegal wool industry was, however, an ancillary beneficiary of British industrial policy. In 1711, England established the Linen Board, led by a French Huguenot who had fled to Ireland to avoid persecution by Louis XIV, to promote and improve the production of Irish linen. Part of this effort was to distribute spinning wheels throughout Ireland. Although Donegal had little linen production, they adapted these wheels to spin woolen thread instead, which sped up production through the 18th century.
In the early 20th century, trade with Britain and the United States expanded. The British government’s need for wool in the First World War superseded all industrial policy. By 1920, wholesaler James Molloy had his own warehouse on Fifth Avenue in New York. But by the 50s, trade restrictions challenged the industry once again, this time in the form of American import quotas. But through the combined efforts of Irish firms and Irish-American immigrants, Donegal firms won an exception to the quota for cloth woven, like theirs, on the old manually-operated 28” looms, rather than the industrial looms that produced double-wide cloth.
This privilege probably extended the lifespan of the hand-weaving tradition in Donegal for a few decades. But once fashion houses started wanting to use Donegal tweed, they demanded large quantities of cloth, and wanted it in the 56” width to which they were accustomed. Both these requirements drove a shift to power looms, which dominate production today.
Donegal tweed is not protected by trademarks and production standards like Harris Tweed is. So the cloth woven by machine today in Donegal is just as much Donegal tweed as the handwoven cloth, and tweed made with flecks of color in the Donegal style can call itself “donegal tweed” with impunity. County Donegal, thrashed by the wind and waves of the Atlantic, pinched by its border with Northern Ireland, remains a land without protections.