Harris and Donegal

June 15, 2013

(Harris and Donegal was read on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1 in May 2013)

In the window of Kevin and Howlin, 31 Nassau Street, a well-vanished spinning-wheel and a vase of canary-yellow sunflowers are surrounded by tweed jackets, waistcoats and caps. Scruffy-haired students walk around me; I overhear them talk about Electric Picnic. A bus trundles past, blowing dry orange leaves onto the pavement.

I’ve been seeking my own ‘perfect’ tweed jacket for almost a year. Growing up, I considered tweed to be old-fashioned – something that the Royal family wore, along with Sherlock Homes and Mr Toad from The Wind in the Willows. It was the kind of thing that an older generation would’ve said had ‘great wear’. In fact, there’s a picture of my grandparents outside their cottage, their backs to a wall of honeysuckle; he’s wearing a tweed cap while she’s wearing a herringbone overcoat with an imitation Tara Broach on the lapel.
My grandfather was buried with his cap a year ago, as if it was part of him, an extra limb of sorts. Perhaps, that’s why I’ve changed my opinion about tweed. Yet, for almost a year, I’ve wandered in and out of Dublin vintage shops in vain. Though many jackets fit my shoulders, these second-hand tweeds are made for men of rounder figures, men older than me. There’s nothing wrong with these jackets, in fact, their ability to become an eternal part of their wearer, a second skin of sorts, is ultimately the problem. They’re made to fit one person – perhaps the right thing to do is to bury all tweeds with their owners.

This autumn, I notice high street shops are doing their own versions of the tweed jacket, fashion coming full circle, reinventing the 1980s Princess Diana inspired ‘Sloane Ranger’. Brown and orange tweed jackets, poorly stitched with buttons that will inevitably fall off after one season, line the windows of Grafton Street. Friends make suggestions – Topman, River Island and Jack Wills – but there is something phony about these mass-produced versions, especially the machine stitching, which makes me return each jacket to its hanger. I hope that my tweed will still hang in my wardrobe in a decade’s time, essentially unchanged, which makes me decide against these cheaper varieties.

So I step into Kevin and Howlin, feeling instinctively drawn to its traditional façade. The walls are lined with dinner-jackets, overcoats and suits. What surprises me most is the range of colours, the flecks of turquoise, azure and burnt orange. My hand runs along the rows of jackets, fascinated by the varying textures, examining the patterns – herringbone, plaid and check.

I mention the colours to the shop assistant and she speaks of the blackberries, fuchsia, gorse and lichens that are used for dyes. She tells me about the one hundred different types of fabric to choose from, how I might decide upon the fit, the length, the pockets, and even the buttons of my jacket. Of course, there is the price to consider, a series of hundreds, but it seems easily justifiable when I consider the effort involved in making it.

I leave the shop with a brochure, later researching online the seemingly infinite types of tweed that I might choose from. I read the history of the Harris Tweed, hand-woven by islanders on the Outer Hebrides of Scotland for centuries, how Catherine Murray, Countess of Dunmore, created a textile industry in the bleak times of the 1840s, where the Highlands, like Ireland, had their own potato famine. Closer to home, the Donegal Tweed is likewise a centuries-old tradition, the Magee clothing factory now producing thousands of hand-made garments each week, their fabrics sought by Armani and Ralph Lauren.

I realise now why none of the alternatives to real personalised tweed will do. There is no shortcut to generations of skill. I might always buy three-euro packets of black socks from Penny’s and ten-euro T-shirts from H&M, throwing them out as fast as I buy them, but a real tweed jacket connects me to something ancient. It suggests permanence. It’s a jacket to live, and possibly die in.

Jamie O’Connell