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If you like handmade rugs, you probably know there are many places on Earth where they’re made and not just in the Middle East. There are several carpet designs that would give Persian rugs a run for its money and one illustrious contender is the Irish-made Donegal rug.
Donegal is the fourth-largest county in Ireland and is also the most isolated in terms of geography. Most people would look at this as some sort of disadvantage but locals wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, the isolation has helped preserve many of its traditions including hand weaving wool into different products such as jackets and area rugs.
In the late 1890s, Scottish textile maker and industrialist Alexander Morton came to Ireland seeking to expand his business. Morton was already supplying machine-made rugs but he wanted a slice of the handwoven market dominated by Persian rugs. He picked the port town of Killybegs in Donegal for his base of operations as it offered him easy access to the harbour and its facilities.
Aside from accessibility, Donegal also offered Morton a steady supply of workers eager to work. The county was experiencing some hard times and much to Morton’s delight, many of those seeking employment had previous experience in embroidery and lace-making that made the transition to rug weaving easier. In addition to hiring workers, Morton also used wool from locally-grown sheep that generated income for Donegal farmers, yarn spinners, and dye makers.
The first batch of Donegal rugs were inspired by Celtic designs deeply imbedded in Irish history and folklore although weavers used Persian and Turkish techniques. When the rugs were nearly finished, they were trimmed to remove loose pieces that made Morton’s carpets unique – they were highly textured compared to the smooth finish commonly found in Middle Eastern and Asian rugs.
One of the first big orders for Donegal rugs came from a local church that opened in 1901. It was soon followed by a government office in Cork that paved the way for the rug to be featured in the Cork Exhibition in 1902. Morton’s rugs steadily gained popularity as more prominent people purchased them like King Edward, Queen Victoria and other members of the royal family. Donegal rugs also found their way into Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and even in the White House.
Today, many top interior designers in the world love to incorporate Donegal rugs into their projects for their high quality of craftsmanship and ‘Art Nouveau’ designs that’s starting to make a comeback in the home decor scene. The original Killybegs production site is still in operation but has been converted into a heritage center for tourists to experience first-hand how the original Donegal rugs were made.