Tweedy types

Heritage, history and home life merge for the Temple family,owners of Magee in Donegal where a new generation ismaking its mark

M agee is the name and tweed is their game and they have been at it in Donegal for nearly 150 years, wool and weaving being part of the county's DNA. The drapery shop John Magee founded in 1866 still dominates the Diamond in Donegal town. Today, tourists and locals alike are browsing through jackets and coats of sleek silk, linen and wool, all bearing the Magee label with its discreet wolfhound logo.

It was Magee's cousin, Robert Temple from Ballybofey, who took over the company in 1900 and brought in his son Howard to develop tweed's potential. It was to become – and still remains – a fabric with a long history, associated internationally with Irish excellence and craftsmanship.

Heritage companies worldwide are exploiting the power of their past to drive sales. Harris has done it in Scotland and Chanel has invested in a Scottish cashmere company. Magee is no exception. "Heritage is now contemporary and we are benefiting from that and using our own cloth in a much more exciting way," says managing director Lynn Temple, Howard's son. Magee not only weaves cloth for haute couture and luxury brands (though coy about naming customers), it is developing and improving its own clothing and accessories, as well as operating retail outlets. A new website was launched in January.

A fit 60-year-old who cycles to work every day from the family home in Mountcharles on a top-of-the range titanium bike, Temple demonstrates vividly how styles have changed. Donning a six-year-old Magee linen jacket before replacing it with one in silk Donegal tweed from the current collection, he points to the differences in shape between the two. “The length, shoulder and skirt of the jacket six years ago are completely different. The new style is slimmer, shorter and narrower. That is the effect of design on a basic man’s jacket. The changes are always subtle,” he explains. With sales up 30 per cent in the first six months of this year compared to last, public response has been positive.


Fortunes have fluctuated in recent times, he readily admits. “We went through three very difficult years and struggled to get out of the mould everyone had cast us in. But we have gone from basic tweed and rather conservative suits and jackets into exciting fashion aimed at the 30s-plus,” he says, guiding me around the shop and its stylishly revamped cafe.

In the headquarters, Gill Mudie, who heads up the textile design team, displays some of the bold, colourful and intricate new fabrics heading to the Première Vision fabric fair in Paris and to private customers. These samples have names such as St Brigid’s Cross, Patchwork, Parquet and Urban Grid, with many aimed at avant garde tastes.

The young Irish designer Alan Taylor, for instance, is making waves in London proudly using Magee tweeds.

“We sell to traditional Savile Row tailors who use them in the traditional way and we sell to designers who use them in a completely different way – it’s how they perceive the fabrics, and our job is to inspire,” says Mudie.

John Burke from Inver, a weaver with more than 30 years’ experience, is setting up a rapier loom with some 3,200 coloured linen threads, a job that can take a whole day. “You never stop learning,” he says. “There’s always something new.” Out of a workforce of 120, 50 are employed in Magee weaving.

The fourth generation of Temples is now involved in the business, with Lynn’s daughter Charlotte and son Paddy bringing their energy to various areas of the business. Charlotte, a former lieutenant in the Irish army and a battalion commander in Liberia, joined the company five years ago and heads up the clothing design team. She has not only brought flair and colour into the collections, but, according to her father, has put her army training into effective on the sales staff.

Paddy, a fresh-faced engineering graduate from Trinity College Dublin who returned last year from a wave energy project in Scotland, looks after wholesale customers in Ireland and the UK.

The family are keen sportspeople. Charlotte, who is “made of carbon steel alloy”, according to a friend, completed the Ironman triathlon in Lanzarote two years ago, has climbed Kilimanjaro, runs marathons and like her father, cycles.

Paddy is a sailor but, away from the factory, he and his father enjoy “wood therapy and spending a lot of time with chain saws”, cutting up firewood and rough shooting. The youngest Temple, Rosy (known as the rocket) is another formidable person, who is a specialist in watercolours and Victorian art at Christies in London, swims in the Serpentine every day and has cycled to Paris from London.

Theirs was an enviable childhood as they grew up by the sea in a lovely 18th century house called Salthill, which Lynn and his wife Elizabeth bought in 1984. “They had great freedom,” says Elizabeth, “and it was a safe place for them to be. I think it made them all extremely self-reliant.”

One of the founders of the Donegal Garden Trail, her celebrated walled garden, which she started from scratch as a young mother, has become one of the most visited in Donegal. Last year it was the location for Charlotte’s wedding.

Moored not far from the jetty is Lynn's boat, a 28ft gleoiteog (small Galway hooker), specially built for him in 1994 by local master builder Michael O'Boyle. "I feel a huge affinity for the sea, the mountains and the whole landscape and friendliness of local people. Magees have always been part of the life of Donegal and despite the difficulties and cutbacks, we have kept it going and now new blood is making that heritage contemporary."