A Spinner in Ireland: Donegal Tweed
Tweed! Just the word makes me swoon, all those flecks of color. Tweed yarns, like Tahki Donegal Tweed and every Rowan tweed yarn, made me want to be a knitter. Tweed yarns are always the yarns I’m magnetically attracted to, the first I squeeze in a LYS. Tweed yarns were one of the reasons I learned to spin, just to figure out how it’s made.
I recently co-hosted a trip to Ireland and our group was lucky enough to tour Donegal Yarns, the home of the ultimate tweed yarns. Donegal Yarns makes their own yarns and also spins tweed for lots of other yarn companies like Tahki, Isager, and Kelbourne Woolens. If a yarn label says anything about Donegal tweed, it was spun at this mill.
To say I was excited about this tour is an understatement. It was one of the best days of my knitting life. Our tour was comprehensive from clean fibers to finished and tagged yarn. We even got a peek at the yarn design process.
Making the yarn
Clean fibers come in from all over, some from Irish sheep, but many are imported. The first thing is to dye the fiber. Different amounts of fiber are dyed depending if the fiber will be a base color or a fleck color.
Based on the color formula for a particular yarn, after dyeing the colors are mixed with air. All of the colors are shoveled into a machine, that then drops them from the ceiling with the help of a giant slow-moving fan, the flecks and base color are mixed via the swirling air.
They let me get in the machine. Covered with flecks, it was better than Christmas.
A finished mix looks like this. There are so many more colors and shades of color that go into tweed yarn than I thought. Yes, I touched every fiber pile we passed.
After mixing the fibers are the carded twice to further mix the colors and add air to fiber.
Then the fiber is pulled and divided into narrow strands in preparation for woolen spinning.
The spinners waiting to add twist to the fibers lined up above. After spinning, the yarns are plied. Most of the yarns made at this mill are 2-ply or single-ply.
After plying the yarn wound into giant hanks for scouring and drying. This is the part of the process that takes the most time. You can’t rush drying wool without the chance of felting it.
After the yarn is dried, it’s skeined and labeled. All of the labeling is done by hand. So much of the work at this mill is done in the same way it has for decades, and the quality shows.
Designing the colors
One of the most frequent questions I get asked about tweed yarn is, “How do they pick the colors that go together?”
You might think that in our knitting year of 2023 it’s all about computers picking colorways from photos. Nope, not at Donegal Yarns.
The colors are still picked and made into a color recipe by hand, at this table.
Each cubby is filled with a different color, and the expert colorist hand cards them together to make a colorway based on a color idea, a trend, or an image.
Here is the very start of a color recipe for a client company. Looking at the recipe the base color is 88% of the yarn, and the flecks are 12%, 2% each of six different colors.
Do you even need to ask about shopping? I bought a sweater’s quantity of tweed that reminded me of all the green fields in Ireland.