The drive west towards Ardara in County Donegal is a breathtaking one, even in the grey mist and persistent drizzle. The scenic Glengesh Pass cuts through the high mountains affording hazy views of narrow lakes and flocks of sheep dot the landscape before the road descends to the small town on the Atlantic coast.
The knitwear factory, Bonner of Ireland, is easy to miss with its unassuming facade, which feels more like a family home than a bustling enterprise. Established in 1976 by husband and wife team Cornelius and Bernadette Bonner, it was in fact originally the hay shed of friends of theirs. Purchased over 40 years ago, the building, which included an adjoining piggery, is now home to their established family knitwear business. Cornelius sadly passed away in 2008 and his son Eamonn now runs the company, honouring his father’s vision and tenacity for blending traditional techniques with modern technology. While retired, Bernadette continues to keep a close eye on operations, nipping back and forth between the factory and her home, which is conveniently located right next door.
Entering the factory floor, the sound of the computerised flat knitting machines makes a buzzing first impression. The persistent hum is met with the twirling movement of yarn in a timed choreography, from the cones up through the perfectly spaced tension threading system and into the machine carriage. “My father Cornelius was a great visionary and could see that these electronic machines were the way to move forward,” explains Eamonn. “By using this machine we were able to bring back the hand knit patterns into the market.”
Our visit coincides with the production of the TOAST Menswear sweater. The style features traditional cables with a moss stitch, diamond cable and ring cable. “We use these electronic machines to knit the complicated cables that we can’t do on the hand frame machine,” says Eamonn, “but when we knit on the machine everything we do is fully fashioned,” he adds. Each front, back and sleeve is then knitted together by one of Bonner’s skilled technicians on a linking machine, giving a better finish and shoulder shape before being hand finished. “In developing the TOAST sweater we have used a complex diamond pattern, which is much slower to knit but we don’t believe in taking shortcuts,” says Eamonn. “By taking this time, we can ensure a quality product that looks much much better when it’s finished. I mean, you can see the time and care that has gone into it,” he enthuses.
Having worked at Bonner since 1986, Eamonn is committed to sustaining this craft by keeping the company agile and adapting to new systems when needed. “I learnt on the hand flat machines and I progressed onto the computer. Even with the knowledge I’ve gathered over the last 35 years, I’m still learning.” Eamonn and the team at Bonner apply these skills that have been honed over decades to update traditional styles for their customers - be it an individual or an international brand. “I have a great respect for the heritage. My father loved the hand knits and wanted to keep that idea going. We work with the traditional designs but have updated them for a better fit and shape for the customer.”
The team at Bonner are longstanding members of the business and average 30-years of service. “Some of our team have been here since the start and worked with my father,” says Eamonn, “and what’s lovely is that now some of their children work here so it’s a very close-knit family company.” Their expertise in hand finishing, linking and inspecting garments is a rarity. So too are some of the machines, which are no longer being made. Berta, the affectionate name given to the oldest linking machine, is a treasured part of production. “When she goes I go,” jokes Breda Breslin who has worked on the linking machines for 32 years.
As we walk through the process of making a sweater, there is an evident level of care and attention that goes into each step. Ann Gildea is responsible for checking all knits when they come off the machine and uses a latch needle given to her by Cornelius 33 years ago. “I like to focus on the details,” she says, as she fixes a dropped stitch on a garment. “It’s a collective effort,” says Eamonn. “Each member of the team feels very strongly about ensuring the product is perfect before it leaves here.”
The defining characteristics of a Bonner knit are quality, long-lasting yarns knitted with classic cable patterns and made with skilled craftsmanship. “All the yarns we source are natural, high quality wool - from British wool and merino to cashmere - this is really important to us,” he says. Eamonn adds that the heritage of the area in Donegal is also reflected in every piece they knit. “Ardara is known for its knitwear and we want to keep that tradition going for as long as we can.”
The Making of Our Donegal Sweater
Words by Andie Cusick.
Photographs and film by James Bannister.
Shop our Wool Cable Knit Sweater made at Bonner of Ireland.
Watch our TOAST Menswear film on our IGTV channel.