There is only one settlement within any sort of proximity to the father-son mill in County Donegal: the father-son home, ten paces away. Beyond that, there are miles and miles of grass and gorse, as far as the untrained eye can see, before running into the Derryveagh or Bluestack mountains to the north or south.
Which means that, when the wind blows the right way — and blow it always does in this part of Ireland — you can hear the click-clack of weaving from some way off. The click-clack is two looms; small but busy Somet Rapier looms, of mid-70s vintage, assembled and tuned up to the apex of how these things can run. They shine and sing, these looms, couldn’t weave better, and they make enough work to occupy the day of two men. Convenient, since there are only ever two men here.
The weavers are helped along by the labour-saving likes of the Fischer-Poege mechanical knotter (over on the right) — a characterful contraption which, as its name suggests knots mechanically: running from one side of the loom to the other, driven only by the wooden box that doubles as its battery.
Between the two of them, the men — the father and son — do the lot. Not only warping and weaving, but checking their cloth over by eye, millimetre by millimetre, and repairing imperceptible faults with even more imperceptible needlework. No tweed leaves here until worthy of the family name — which, going back as it does six generations, is not a benchmark taken lightly. A loom shed beside the family home is all the son has ever known; from knee-height was threading perns for pocket-money. The father much the same. Has a wealth of weaving and textile knowledge, the father; is a master technician, having worked his way through many types of loom — his fair share of Hattersleys and Dobcrosses — before settling on the Somets. The Somets are favoured since they are versatile, reliable, and can be run at a pace sympathetic to the characteristics and inherent irregularities of Donegal yarn, when all it takes is one oversized nepp or big-boned burr to bring things to a halt.
The looms weave according to the patterns programmed on punch-cards, and the archive goes back to the 1960s.
The tweed woven here is traditional of the region only in its use of locally spun and dyed yarn. In almost every other way, what the father and son weave is unique. It is characterised by a clever open weave, allowing it to breathe and drape in ways above the run of common tweed; by geometric patterns — some inspired by the cloth archives of granddads and great-granddads — on muted palettes; and by texture ramped up with thick and thin yarns swapped in and out of warp and weft. The yarn itself is specific to the mill, too: devised recipe-like to a guarded family formula. Base colours are offset or complemented with spot colours — the nepps and burrs — some of which are family perennials, others seasonal or new to the table. Of course, the colours reflective of the ubiquitous gorse bushes, peaty flats, and sandstone outcrops of the landscape — the inescapable constants of all Donegal yarn — they are there, too.
There is the nous and design pedigree of the younger, and the exhaustive material and machine wherewithal of the elder. On top of that are the certain irreplicable efficiencies of working side-by-side with someone with whom you share a fair old chunk of the same genes — not to mention the same commitment to the family business: the lineage of six generations to both take pride in and do proud. Impossible, really, to imagine the cloth woven here coming about any other way.
One navy warp being readied for transfer over to the loom (above). Next up: grey Donegal yarn flecked with navy (right) — freshly dyed and spun ten miles down the road.
And that, if you hear on the wind a faint hum — the sped-up metronomic percussion of a shuttle whizzing back and forth, maybe, or a warping mill clacking round and round — when strolling in a remote, rugged, but in the scheme of the general area otherwise innocuous corner of County Donegal — that’s what you’re hearing: two men, weaving their tweed, up here in a shed beside the family home.