This story originally appeared on the ACL Newsletter. You can subscribe here.
A few years ago my friend Tyler Thoreson was the Editor-in-Chief at Ralph Lauren and he asked me to go to Donegal to do a story about the Magee factory who has been making Donegal Tweed cloth for RL since the early days of Polo. He wanted to mix in some golf and a factory visit. I was being paid to go to Ireland and tour factories and play links golf. I would do these things for free. The catch was I had to take photos and write about it. The problem (in my mind) was that I can easily do these things for my own site, but to do them for a brand was more of a challenge.
Recently I came across the pictures from the trip and dug up my story. Going to Magee and spending time with the Temple family at their business and in their home was wonderful and I want more people to know about them. They are just great people. Salt of the earth.
Donegal is wonderful and I hope to be able to return soon. Magee cloth is some of the finest in the world and should absolutely be celebrated, supported and cherished. You have to give credit to Ralph Lauren for being one of Magee’s best customers and buying the cloth since 1967. To sit in an office above the factory and hear the great stories about the RL buyers that made the trip every year was unforgettable. Ralph doesn’t get as much credit as they should for sustaining so many great things in menswear like Magee.
My original story (and photos) about Donegal cloth and Magee is below. Hope you like it.
When I moved to Los Angeles a few years ago I knew that I wasn’t going to have the easy access to Europe that I had enjoyed during my 15 years in New York. Getting to Ireland from my west coast home-base now means a flight through JFK and then a redeye into Dublin. As our plane depended and a view of the Irish countryside opened up, I pressed my head up against the window to try and see which side of the road the cars were driving on. Before I left some part of me was wrongly convinced that Ireland drove on the right side of the road. When I could see the cars moving I knew I was in for a long day of uneasy driving as I was headed to Donegal, in the far-flung Northwest corner of Ireland. While it’s a long and stressful journey, Donegal is such a stunner it’s worth a tired white-knuckled excursion in your own hired car.
My trip to Donegal was a pilgrimage that Ralph Lauren fabric buyers have been making since 1967 when the iconic Donegal tweed maker Magee first partnered with the then-burgeoning New York brand. Buyers today still make the same trip and end up in the same wood-paneled room on the second floor of the Magee mill to review cloth samples. The lore of the different Ralph Lauren buyers bounces around the factory even today. Nearly everyone there has a story and a respect for what the two companies have created together. Unlike every other brand that has ever bought fabric from Magee, every single piece of cloth that RL has procured over the past five decades has been custom-made as an exclusive that couldn’t be had anywhere else. It’s a long-running partnership that has continued to grow every season. As someone who loves the provenance of heritage goods, I wanted to go to Donegal see the Magee mill and learn what has kept Ralph Lauren interested in beautiful tweed cloth for the past half-century.
After several days in Ireland, I started to understand just how Donegal become one of the leading producers of fine tweed cloth. It reminded me of the similarities of a faraway town of Hasami in Nagasaki prefecture Japan. This little mountain village is known all over the world for making some of the finest porcelain dishes. Situated in the hills on terrain suitable for farming, the limitations of the land led Hasami to become one of the centers for Japanese ceramics for the past 400 years. Typically the positive attributes of an area of land —a good climate, fertile soil or natural resources— helps shape the artistry and industry of a region. As the world has increasingly become a connected and globalized place, it is rare in the modern world for regional limitations to engender a cherished craft. In the cases of Hasami and Donegal, it was the absence of natural resources that led to significant creations.
Like Hasami, the land in Donegal is rugged and formidable with little value for farming. The limitations of the topography forced the hardworking people who lived there to find other ways to sustain themselves. Contrary to popular belief not every region of Ireland can claim a famous whisky. I learned that the rocky land in County Donegal traditionally has not been suitable enough to grow grain to both feed the people the animals and to make whisky. The green hills are dotted with white flecks of sheep and the chilly rainy weather can make good use of their wool. After some time in Donegal I realized that everything ultimately comes back to how the land has shaped the people, and the people have shaped the place.
They have been making Donegal tweed at Magee since 1866. The mill still sits on the River Eske and the 4th generation of the Temple family carries on the tradition of making some of the most interesting cloth in the world. Making tweed requires the creativity to mix patterns, colors and materials to give the fabric its depth. It also requires tremendous experience to run the looms properly. What makes Donegal tweed special are all of the textures that are combined within one piece of cloth. Part of that comes from the amazing yarns that Magee sources, but the rest comes from the spirit and experience from the people of Donegal. There are some in the mill who have been making tweed in that building for over 5 decades. That experience is what makes the Magee cloth so special and so difficult to replicate. Once you start to really look at Donegal tweed and see the richness and subtly of the fabric, that is the moment you start to understand why buying something authentic to a place truly matters.
County Donegal while a vast and craggy wonderfully exemplifies the raw beauty of Ireland. There are long stretches of coastline with beautiful sandy beaches that sit far below steep rocky cliffs. Sheep in pasture can be found almost everywhere you go. There are some many beautiful country scenes filled with sheep I couldn’t help but to keep stopping the car to take photos. Donegal is a place most interesting to those with a passion for being outside and in nature. Surprising to me, there are also some unexpected discoveries like the world class wave in Bundoran draws big-wave surfers from all over.
It makes sense when you realize that Donegal tweed was originally developed as a sturdy fabric to stand-up to the weather. This becomes even more obvious when you consider the landscape and all of the outdoor pursuits that the area has to offer. While the weather can be foul, it can also be stunningly beautiful and blue sky. The best thing way to think of a trip to Donegal is to treat it like Iceland. Go with the intention of getting outside to take-in all of the activities and scenery. The hiking, cycling and outdoor adventures are all amazing. Northwest Ireland is also similar to Iceland with all of the striking views and Instagram worthy landscapes that it presents. Pack a camera and hike up to the cliffs of Slieve League overlooking the Atlantic and you will never be the same. The whole area is an incredibly dramatic natural landscape that Instagram can’t do justice. The best way to experience the area could be on two wheels. Ride your bike through the many small roads that weave their way along the coastline while stopping for a coffee or a pint of Guinness and a bowl of lamb stew.
You might also want to pack your golf clubs. Not many activities showcase the beautiful landscape like a round of Donegal links golf. The historic clubs throughout the county are some of the most architecturally significant and most beautiful courses found anywhere. Links golf is a different game than most of we play in America. It’s more unique and much more a game of feel rather than one of precise distances. The wind and pin placements play a huge factor and can drastically change the way a course plays. It’s not uncommon to find golfers carrying 10 clubs (as opposed to the typical 14 played in the U.S.) and almost everyone walks.
Even the local courses are fantastic, but I had a chance to sneak in one round at the Ballyliffin Glashedy Links, which are truly the crown jewel of golf in Donegal. Serving as the host of the prestigious Irish open this summer, the course is a wild undulating piece of land overlooking the Atlantic ocean on Ireland’s Northernmost point. It’s rare to find as stunning of a golf course that presents a strong test to a golfer like Ballyliffin does. The routing takes you up and then down a hill offering sweeping views of Donegal’s lush coast. The club is welcoming and friendly. The members delight in hosting visitors who come from all over the world to test their game against the elements and these historic courses. The golf in Ireland can only be described as an experience that will leave you feeling euphoric in a way few other things in life can.
Even though the County covers a large area, Donegal is still a small place. Everyone knows each other and the locals are always happy to help you find your way. Walk into a pub like the Olde Castle Bar in Donegal Town and it will be easy to strike up a conversation with the locals. As a travel destination, Donegal is slightly off the radar compared to other parts of Ireland. Many come to the country and never leave Dublin, but those who seek a more authentic experience will find County Donegal to be an attractive destination. There are several nice hotels including the Lough Eske Castle which has remade a castle estate into a modern hotel with fine touches and excellent service. It all amounts to a country escape that allows a chance to connect with nature and experience a different perspective on life.
When I travel to certain places I am always looking to experience things that are authentic to the place. I want to leave globalization at home and find the unique things that I can’t just order from my phone. I want to encounter things that have survived centuries of change and economic development. These thoughtful items have been passed down from generation to generation. Their continued existence is often equal parts luck, and patronage from the people who appreciate traditional things. Wool cloth from Donegal is no exception and that’s why Ralph Lauren has continued to buy cloth from Magee for the past 50 years. The depth and nuance of the fabric help define both the land where it comes from and the people who live there.