By Joy Elliott

Joy Elliot
The cottage in Lettercaugh, with Lough Anure in the background.

It was seeing an illustration of Tra-na-Rossan Strand that brought my first husband, Alan Hemmings, and I to Donegal in 1950. On our hitch-hiking holiday we met Dr.Molloy, in Dungloe.We stayed overnight at his invitation. During our time with him there had been a discussion of sorts about local industry and emigration.

Back in London, that autumn, a letter arrived from Dr. Molloy. He seemed interested in us starting up a hand-weaving business. He told us of a cottage available to rent and ended his letter: ‘Did we want to come and try our luck with the weaving project?’ He lent us 300 pounds over five years. Relatives were also talked into putting up money for our venture.

In June 1951 we travelled to Donegal. We arrived very weary and a little apprehensive. The following day Dr. Molloy and Patsy Sweeney, the Dungloe solicitor, drove us to our cottage in Lettercaugh. It was a townland, just above Lough Anure.

We had no kettle with us, no cups and saucers. A local widow lent us a kettle, cups, saucers, and plates. The only method of heating water was to be by open fire. There was no electricity. I washed the clothes and rinsed them in the stream across the road, in an open well. I struggled with cooking on the open fire. We bought both a bread oven and a crock, which was a three-legged cast iron pot with lid and handle. This was hung from a hook on a chain, suspended from inside the chimney. I cooked many things, such as pancakes, bread, scones and at Christmas, a Christmas cake.

In September the hand-weaving loom arrived – having been sent first to Kerry in error. My sheets and saucepans arrived also. When we first moved to the cottage there was a small amount of furniture: a table, some chairs and a bed (all soon repossessed to pay a debt due from previous tenants). So, Alan made a table and also some wobbly chairs. We graduated from sleeping on the floor to sleeping on the wooden packing case. We could not afford a mattress, so we padded the bed with clothes. This was extremely uncomfortable to sleep on.

The combination of early marriage and starting up a venture in such a wild and somewhat primitive location made life tough. It brought out the pioneering spirit in me, however, and inventiveness to overcome difficulties. Did I ever get overwhelmed or despondent with my life? It was difficult coping with primitive living and working conditions. Life was also very busy. Household chores took up a lot of time. Preparation for meals, washing, then into the weaving shed to weave or fringe scarves and stoles.

That summer, 1952, Alan set off cycling to Falcarragh to sell some of what we made. Charlie Green took six scarves for his shop, ‘sale or return’. At this time we were very low in finance, for milk and turf especially. We toasted bread and used beef dripping on it instead of butter. Then the miracle of our first cheque! Some fresh produce was given to us by the Lough Anure school principal, as I was pregnant. The relief was great – I remember saying grace before we ate such welcome food!

Roger was born on February 27th, 1953. How ever did I manage when I brought Roger home? Childhood is a huge change (and challenge) – in a mother’s life anyway. No running water, no electricity, no phone for emergencies, and just the turf for cooking and heating water. When Guy was born, in 1955, I had two children in nappies, in primitive rural conditions.

Alex Nesbit, of Arnotts, now held the majority of the shares. I was not keen to move, having put down roots, though tentative. So much of me was in the cottage, the mountain views, the simplicity of living in the country. A factory place was found, in Verschoyle Place, off Mount Street. It was dark and cramped, Dickensian in fact. The home accommodation was in a top floor flat in Raglan Road. Now I had running water from a tap and also a bath! There was an electric cooker, a real bedroom and a proper sink to wash the clothes in.

Later we moved to our first suburban semi-detached home in 1959, when Louis, our third and last child, was two years old. The house was in Ardagh Park, Blackrock. All my children started school at All Saints’ National School, Carysfort Avenue, Blackrock.

Now I was freer to design and to invent colours and separates. My input into Donegal Design increased when the factory moved to Clonskeagh.What had begun with inventing shades of colour and finishes, now encompassed collections twice yearly, with new colours each time. This meant that sample blankets had to be worked out on paper, then woven. A very long sample blanket was woven annually, to my specification, from which I then cut sections, finally choosing the best ideas.

I now designed and oversaw the production of jackets, ponchos, coats, capes and cape coats. This also meant that linings and dyed buttons came into the process. I was pleased to win various Irish and European textile awards: The Bavarian State Gold medal, and The Córas Tráchtála design award.

After I divorced in 1973, I married Gerald Elliott in 1977. He was working as director of Elliott Poplin, his family textile business, in the Coombe. I designed and sewed poplin period-style dresses which are now in the textile collection at Collins Barracks Museum, Dublin. I am 80 years old now and still make and alter clothes, still creative and restless after all these years…..

Joy Elliott, born in Derby 1931, is a self taught colorist and clothesdesigner. Donegal Design was the first company in Ireland to create brightly coloured, brushed mohair textiles. Joy won a number of awards for her colours and designs. She paints abstract pictures and has designed church altar frontals and banners.

Joy’s book From Derby to Donegal is available in a Kindle edition on the Amazon website,

Comments about this page

  • It has been lovely reading about the past , about how the Business started. I was an Apprentice in Mount St in about 1959/60.
    It was great to hear the “clickers clack” of the then modern Looms, Hattersleys, also the wooden looms. I remember having to deliver some of my work, mostly Mohair, to the like of Brown Thomas and other very upmarket shops, and to know my name was printed on each label. Also I had my turn at hopping on the “Messenger Bike” to cycle a load of Loop Yarn to the Dyers in Lucan, what a job that was for a young lad. Great times.
    Now 78 years young, gave up the Weaving game, sorry for doing that, became an Engineer, and came to Australia
    Thank you for the experience
    Regards Tommie Brennan

    By Tommie Brennan (23/01/2022)
  • Fergal Maguie – I am so glad I looked afresh at this article that my mother wrote in 2014!!

    I am hoping to rent that very cottage, or one nearby, in Spring 2020. The reason being, I want to make a hand weaving pilgrimage in homage to my pioneering parents…If you can help, I’d be greatly obliged…

    Now some information for you:

    My parents were textile pioneers / founders of Donegal Design Handweaving, in 1950s Donegal.

    Derby born, my working class parents lived and worked in London. My father had taken London City and Guilds exams on weaving techniques, and worked in a silk merchants. My mother attended art college for a while, and worked with a French seamstress. One day, a small serendipity happened. My mother saw a picture of Tra na Rossan Bay in Donegal, in a library book. On a random impulse, the early 20s couple caught the cattle ferry to Dublin, and hitch hiked to Donegal to see this bay.

    Soon after they met Canon T. Molloy in Dunloe. He invited them in for a meal and a bed for the night. After dinner, the fireside chat was about the great decline of Donegal weaving, due to emigration. When they returned to London, a few days later, two letters came from Canon Molloy. One asking if he found a suitable location would they consider returning to set up a weaving venture. The second letter asked would a loan of a few hundred pounds help expedite their wish to establish a cottage industry.

    What was found was a remote mountain cottage and one-time local dance hall. The hall, made from corrugated metal, became their “industry base”. My mother designed colours, my father died the hanks of wool. He then hand wove that wool, my mother then made the fabric into mohair hats and scarves. Then, my father cycled many miles around North West Donegal selling their colourful textile products.

    Five years later the priest requested the return of his handshake, interest free loan. Outside money came in, from the Nesbitt family (Arnotts) and mass textile producer, McDevitts. An expansion of staff from three, to circa twenty. Trade shows in Europe. Awards won. Backing from Sybill Connolly was a boost. Donegal Design broke into the American market, selling in Lord & Taylor & other American fashion retailers.

    A few starter references, if interested.

    A poem

    Archival photos

    all the best

    By louis (30/10/2019)
  • I now own the little cottage down the lane just to the right and behind the cottage in the foreground , the little cottage has from what I can see has not changed very much on the outside except the thatch is gone replaced with tiles. I wonder if you would have any more photos of the cottage behind or can tell me any thing about the family who lived there, I would be very grateful if you have / could give me any information you have as I’d love to know more about the people and cottage . With thanks Fergal Maguire.

    By Fergal Maguie (01/06/2019)
  • Very interesting. I have read your first husbands book. I am from Dungloe and Dr. Molloy was the celebrant at my wedding in 1966 in Dublin.

    By Gertrude O Connell (nee Boyle) (20/02/2018)
  • Fascinating story, hard to imagine the difficulties of rural life today where everything is so accessible…we have some material from Elliotts Poplin at the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life.

    By Joanne Hamilton (12/08/2014)
  • For a fuller account of Donegal Design, written by Alan Hemmings, THE FRIENDLINESS OF TOTAL STRANGERS – A Donegal weaving adventure, might interest readers. It is available as a free Kindle, iPhone & iPad download. Also available as a pdf.

    By louis hemmings (28/07/2014)

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