A Traditional Craft:
Irish Tweed Caps get their distinctive colors and patterns from the landscape of Ireland’s most northerly county, Donegal. It is the beauty and quality of the fabric that makes Donegal Tweed special, and so sought after internationally. The colors match the patterns seen from the cottage window: of turf and hill and fuschia, of sea and cloud and sky.
Anyone who has spent time in Donegal will know just how changeable the climate can be. Four seasons in one day are not uncommon, even in midsummer. Tweed caps became the perfect headwear for those working outdoors, trapping warmth head and waterproofing the wearer.
The customary process of making it is unlike any other, resulting in a signature color-flecked weave. Woven from woolen spun yarns, it is characterized by its plain weave structure composed of uneven slub yarns contrasting with the ground color. Traditionally, the woman of the house spun the yarn from the family sheep’s wool and the husband then weaved the spun wool. The original patterns were a black and white herringbone when the colors were limited to the colors of the sheep’s wool. With blackface sheep, the weaver used whatever mixture they could make from that to make a black and white or grey and white pattern. And it is these colors, and the individual colored flecks, that give Irish Tweed Caps their characteristic classic design.
With the introduction of dyes the tweed took on a range of new and very distinctive colors. Children would gather the colors locally from the Irish landscape to dye the wool: purple blackberries, orange lichen, yellow gorse and the plentiful red fuschia that is such a distinctive summer feature of the Donegal countryside. The dyes were brewed by heating the plants and lichens in a large cooking pot on the household turf fire. This was then allowed to cool before the pure new wool from the household sheep was steeped.
Come October, the farmers would come in from the fields to stretch the white yarn the length of the loom frame – known as warping the loom. Then fine-tune the shuttle that would weave a contrasting vertical yarn – the weft – across the warp.
Traditional wooden handlooms differ only slightly in design and operation from those used in biblical times. The loom is operated manually and the weaving may be described as passing the horizontal threads – the weft – through the warp by means of a shuttle. Thread by thread and row by row, the weft is eased into place. The complicated permutations of color and design are coordinated and interpreted as the weaver proceeds.
The warp is the first step in arranging the various colors to form a foundation upon which the weaver will, with almost magical skill, produce the pattern. It can take even the best weavers up to half a day to draw 1000 threads through the reed to form the warp to the age-old pattern. However, a good weaver – seated at a bench attached to a wood loom, coordinating hand and foot movements – could produce up to thirty yards of fabric a day.
Hand-weaving is a skill that has been passed down through generations. Many families lived by both the hand-spinning and hand-weaving of cloth in their homes, then selling their unique family product at the local tweed market.
In many parts of Donegal hand-weaving is still practiced in the very same way as it was over 200 years ago. In Donegal it is a hereditary skill that has passed from generation to generation over many centuries. It is one of the few survivors of the ancient craft, which now serves the modern world.
Contributed by Joe Summer