Business Irish

Friday 19 January 2018

A 60-year old mill inspired by Donegal's hills and heathers

We sing the praises of McNutt's Donegal Woollen Mills

IT'S NATURE'S WAY: 'We like to say that our products are inspired by the hills, the heathers and the Atlantlic waters,' says a proud William McNutt. Photo: David Conachy
IT'S NATURE'S WAY: 'We like to say that our products are inspired by the hills, the heathers and the Atlantlic waters,' says a proud William McNutt. Photo: David Conachy
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

Anyone who has spent time in Donegal knows that it is battered by torrential rain and Atlantic winds for many months of the year - but that it also has one of the most rugged, beautiful and colourful landscapes in the world.

So it is no surprise, then, that the small seaside village of Downings is the home of traditional tweeds and colourful woollen scarves, throws and blankets.

"We like to say that our products are inspired by the hills, heathers and Atlantic waters," said William McNutt, joint managing director of McNutt's Donegal Woollen Mills.

Mr McNutt's father, Bill, set the business up about 62 years ago.

"Before the mill was built, my mother had a little shop around the corner from where the mill is now," said Mr McNutt. "She used to sell clothes like tweeds and knitwear there.

"My father went to Galashiels in Scotland, where he studied textiles. And then in 1953, he set up the mill."

The mill was very busy in its early days and the business grew rapidly at the time. It originally specialised in weaving Donegal tweed.

"We got the contract for providing the Aer Lingus uniform in the 1960s," said MrMcNutt. "That was very exciting for the family. I was only three or four at the time."

In the early 1970s, the business moved away from hand-weaving tweed and into power looms. "It started getting expensive to produce hand-woven tweed so Dad put in first-generation weaving looms," said Mr McNutt.

It was during this decade that the Japanese designer Kenzo discovered tweed - and Downings.

"Dad brought Kenzo to Downings to buy tweed and took him home for lunch," said Mr McNutt.

The mill has changed a lot over the decades. "In the early days, we produced tweed for the Irish market - and overseas a little," said Mr McNutt. "We then moved on to selling to overseas designers and fashion houses, like the Kenzos. Today, the business has moved very much into throws, scarves and accessories."

Downings too has changed a lot as a village since the early 1950s.

"Sixty years ago, there was one hotel, one shop and the weaving mill," said Mr McNutt. "In the 1960s, caravans started arriving in Downings and in the 1970s and 1980s, the holiday homes came."

The mill gets a lot of business from tourists and between Easter and Halloween, it opens a shop for that trade. "Tourists from Northern Ireland would be our main customers," said Mr McNutt. "We also get a mixture of people from Dublin, Britain, Scotland and continental Europe. We're a long way from Dublin Airport, so we don't get many Americans."

Donegal's distance from Dublin Airport isn't its only disadvantage when it comes to the tourist trade. The weather too is a force to contend with.

"We are on the Wild Atlantic Way," explains Mr McNutt. "So in the winter time, there is nothing."

As well as selling directly to tourists, the mill sells to retailers in Ireland (including the Kilkenny Group), Britain, western Europe and Scandinavia.

The mill's products will also be sold in Switzerland this year.

"We met a distributor in Switzerland who felt right about the product and was very keen to sell it," said Mr McNutt. "We get quite a few orders from Australia because of the number of Irish who have emigrated there."

"We sell online too but it's a touchy feely product. So it doesn't always lend itself to online."

Like many family businesses, the mill has had its share of troubles. "The original company got into financial difficulties in the 1980s. There was an expansion and it went wrong," said Mr McNutt.

The mill went into receivership in 1989 but was then taken back over by Mr McNutt and his brother Peter in 1992.

"We got into the world of Irish linen around then and that went very well for us," said Mr McNutt.

Although they are still selling Irish linen, the linen is no longer produced in the mill; rather, it is produced by a sister company.

"About five years ago, we were producing a lot of linen here but it become uneconomic to do so - so we started to produce the original Donegal tweed again," said Mr McNutt.

The company essentially returned to its roots shortly after the recession hit in 2008, introducing a new line of tweed fabrics, wool rugs, throws and scarves.

"We are trying a modern twist on traditional Donegal tweed," said Mr McNutt.

"The brighter colours like reds and purples are outselling traditional colours such as heather, pepper and salt. At the moment, teals and greys are very much in.

"During the recession, people got more into traditional products," Mr McNutt added.

"They realised they may cost a bit more but that you got far more wear out of them. Things are certainly picking up now. You can see sales increasing."

The company employs 11 people today - a far cry from its heydey in the 1960s when up to 75 people worked there. Mr McNutt puts this down to modern technology rather than anything else.

"With modern machines, 11 people can now produce what 75 people could back then," said MrMcNutt.

The 54-year-old Donegal man, who has lived all his life in Downings, says he could not see himself working at anything else - despite the challenges of his trade.

"There was never a boom in the world of textiles," said Mr McNutt. "It is something you have to keep working hard at and reinventing."

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