Every year in September we take time to celebrate our rich heritage and as a 5th generation family business first established in the 1800s, we have lots in the archives to reflect on. This year, we will be focusing on design and what has changed in over 150 years.
In the 19th century, founder John Magee, a wholesale cloth merchant, would visit monthly tweed markets across South-West Donegal, trading directly with the weavers. The then hardwearing, coarse fabric was handwoven across Donegal in the homes of part-time fishermen and farmers as the perfect fabric for dissipating the damp and cold weather, so often found in the North-West of Ireland, a far cry from the luxurious cloths being produced today.
Traditionally, there have always been two ‘true’ Donegal tweed patterns – Salt & Pepper and Herringbone (said to be inspired by fishbones), but that didn’t mean it was always the same, there was lots of opportunity to add colour and personality with the signature neps, the defining characteristic of Donegal Tweeds. The yarn was dyed with natural dyes made from lichen, flowers, berries, and other plants which reflected the natural beauty of the Donegal landscape, and these colourful flecks were created during the yarn spinning process.
Robert Temple, John Magee’s apprentice and cousin took over the business in the early 1900s and made some revolutionary changes. Robert brought the handweavers in-house, opening a tweed factory where the design and quality could be more closely controlled, ensuring consistency across repeat fabrics. This move is seen by many as having saved handwoven Donegal Tweed from extinction.
Moving forward to the middle of the century, and the next generation, we were still focused primarily on handweaving and handknitting, but fashions were changing. We started tailoring in the 1940’s with a focus on men’s jackets and suiting. Magee 1866 stood out from the many others producing dull, grey ‘de-mob’ suiting at the time with our unique and colourful fabrics.
The Magee thronproof suit
We were then established in international fashion in the 1960s due to the relationship between Col. Bob Harris (brother-In-law of Howard Temple) and the Irish designers Sybil Connolly and Irene Gilbert. They began to use Donegal Tweed, which had previously been seen as a ‘functional, hard-wearing fabric,’ in their collections which appealed especially to the US market. This launched Donegal Tweed on the global fashion scene, and it has grown from there.
Irene Gilbert designs in Magee Tweed. Photographer unknown.
Vintage Magee 1866 ads
As continental competition grew in the 70s and 80s, our weaving mill shifted gears and we became a more fashion orientated business. Power looms were introduced, allowing us to develop lighter, softer, more luxurious cloths in more intricate designs, paving the way for the introduction of our first women’s collections in the 1990s.
The classic salt & pepper and herringbone designs are still very much part of our collections today, and we are always looking at ways to adapt these timeless designs into modern pieces.
Our weaving mill in Donegal Town, on the banks of the River Eske, is still the beating heart of everything we do at Magee and we are proud to support a tradition of weaving and manufacturing textiles in the North-West of Ireland, bringing a contemporary edge to an age-old craft.
The design process
There is much to consider when preparing a collection. Our designers in the mill work closely with our clothing designers, looking to our rich heritage, extensive archive, and the inspirational landscape of Donegal, this is balanced with new trends and the needs of our many customers. They plan what we would like to convey through the collection deciding on core fabrics to develop and the stories we wish to tell with each cloth, design and finished product.
Mood boards are worked on – snippets from magazines, old photos, colours swatches, archive fabrics and yarns are collated. Then the technical aspect starts -the detailed fabric design and colour balance, the fit and styling details on a garment. Sampling starts both through our mill and with our garment suppliers. The mill tends to work over twelve months ahead of the next season, while our clothing collection are six to nine months ahead.
Magee 1866 Autumn Winter 2022 Collection
Since we started in the 1800s our focus has always been on slow fashion and natural fibre fabrics – wool, lambswool, alpaca, cashmere, and linen.
Our fabric and clothing collections have certainly evolved over the years, the 1940s embraced the thorn proof suit, moving into the 70s/80s and bold checks took over. Today, we work towards creating lifestyle collections for both men and women – taking elements of the past and working them into a variety of products. The casual movement is global, and we are now making our incredible fabrics into unstructured, light, and beautiful crafted pieces. In the early 2000s we launched our throw and scarf collection; these luxurious products are extra special as they are 100% Irish made.
In the beginning, our fabric was used locally and then sold into the UK, today, thousands of metres, designed and woven in Donegal, are used by international fashion brands, and shipped all over the world. With all this innovation, we are proud of the fact that we are also still handweaving in Donegal.
We are passionate about the preservation of the heritage of weaving and design in Donegal. Trends evolve, but Donegal Tweed is timeless.