The Irish Donegal Sweater

Donegal is the northernmost county in Ireland. On three sides it touches the Atlantic Ocean in a series of spectacular cliffs, coves, and beaches. Exposed to the elements on the north Atlantic coast, the traditional work of farming and fishing can be punishing, and over the centuries the region, like the Scottish islands, developed a particular talent for making dense, warm, and sometimes life-saving woollens.

The most traditional Irish and Scottish sweaters, like the Aran or the Shetland, are heavy, thick garments intended to protect fishermen, herdsmen, and travellers from storms. The lanolin in untreated wool made it naturally water resistant; the chunky cable patterns became a form of expression for the families who knitted them, often in the home.

Donegal itself is known in the clothing industry not for a particular model of sweater but for a distinctive kind of yarn. It’s subtle from a distance but unmistakable up close: flecks of contrasting colours are mixed into the wool as it’s spun, accenting and mottling the resulting knitwear or woven cloth. Like the colours of a landscape, what looks like a solid green or grey from a hundred yards turns out to be full of complementary and contrasting shades. This effect is not an accident of careless colour grading: each additional colour is intentionally added into the yarn mix during the spinning process, meaning that a good Donegal wool is effectively an original composition.

Trunk’s Donegal sweaters are made with wool sourced from Donegal Yarns, a heritage mill in the village of Kilcar (or Cill Charthaigh), County Donegal, adjoining some of the highest sea cliffs in Europe. There’s no legislation to protect Donegal wool from outsourcing and imitation, but the mill still operates entirely in-house, from raw wool finished product. As one of the last remaining mills of its kind, Donegal Yarns can trace its origins back to the original hand-spun wools produced in the region.

In the age of Gore-Tex and central heating, there’s less need for the chunky, boxy sweaters of old, and just as old thornproof tweeds have been replaced by lighter, softer, more luxurious cloths, the modern Donegal has evolved from survival gear into a garment of choice. “The particular yarn we are using is a soft version of a Donegal,” says Julia, Trunk’s own label manager, “so while it is still very much authentic it has a very comfortable hand feel.” Using finer, lighter yarns, and a plain weave, the rich colours and textures provide visual weight and substance without the literal kilos.

Just as the best heritage denim today pays tribute to workwear traditions without being suitable only for miners and cowboys, the Trunk Donegal is a modern take on a historic garment, with the same vibrant, organic colours in a softer, more luxurious merino. It makes a great partner to anything with workwear or outdoorsy origins: dark denim, chambray shirts, and waxed cotton jackets are natural choices.

A versatile, medium-weight layer, the Donegal is as useful for a city weekend as for the great outdoors. Worn over a button-down shirt, with chinos and boots, it’s an easy way to add character and complexity. Over a heavyweight cotton tee, paired with raw denim, it’s the ideal marriage of old and new world heritage gear: the mottled wool fits perfectly with the fades in a well-loved pair of jeans. And of course, it’s a star player in the countryside style common to Britain and Ireland and imitated from New England to Japan: pair it with corduroy and flannel trousers, brushed cotton shirts and tweed overcoats. Red socks and golden retrievers are optional.

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