Looking back in time, history of spinning in Ireland.

Spinning in Ireland

In August 2013, I started asking myself about the history of spinning and working with wool in Ireland. At that time, I had a few books on spinning from various parts of the world, all of which touched on the history of spinning to some extent, but I had no information on the history of spinning in Ireland, so I set out to see if I could find out a little more about spinning and textiles in Ireland in the past.
I tried to formulate my thoughts as questions, as follows:
What do I know about the history of spinning in Ireland and where could I read more about it?
Did the Irish use both drop spindles and wheels? What evidence is there?
Were Great Wheels/Walking Wheels used here in Ireland?
Were sheep kept specifically for their fleece, for spinning? If so, which breeds of sheep were most commonly bred for fleece for spinning?
How was wool dyed, using plants, or other means?

As well as being curious myself, I wanted to be able to give correct information to the people who asked me questions when I was out spinning in public.
So I started asking questions on the Irish Spinners group in Ravelry and I started googling, buying books and surfing the net. Here is some of what I found. I take full responsibility for any and all errors and omissions! If you have any information you would like to add, then by all means contact me.
I started by heading to the Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers web site, www.weavespindye.ie. There I read about the history of the Guild, and an excellent short history of spinning in Ireland, as well as the story of The Weavers’ Guild which operated in Dublin between 1446 and 1840. http://weavespindye.ie/history/
There I also read about Helen Lillias Mitchell. It was Lillias Mitchell who founded the Irish Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers in 1975. Many years before that, in 1951, she founded the Weaving Department in Ireland’s National College of Art and Design.
Among other things, Lillias had had 3 books published, The Craft of Handspinning Dyeing and Weaving in Ireland in 1970, The Wonderful Work of the Weaver in 1972 and Irish Spinning Dyeing and Weaving in 1978. I managed to borrow these books from the library and then went on to buy all three of them.
Lillias had gone to the West of Ireland and spoken to spinners, weavers and dyers and taken photographs, and some of the photographs were in the books. Lillias went around the country and saw and photographed women spinning on Great wheels, one with ‘long’ legs ( the spinner stood while spinning) in Connacht, and one with very short legs in Kerry areas, (where the spinner sat on a low chair to use it). There are also photos of spinners using Donegal wheels, which were a copy of flax wheels brought into Northern Ireland, let me check the dates on those.

I discovered a few more interesting authors:
Meghan Nuttall Sayres wrote a gorgeous book, Weaving Tapestry in Rural Ireland - Taipéis Gael, Donegal about Taipéis Gael, a tapestry weaving collective of international reputation based in Gleann Cholm Cille , Donegal :
“This book explores Taipéis Gael’s mission to contribute to cultural preservation in the Gaeltacht, the Irish-speaking areas of Western Ireland. Special features within this book include informative captions for all illustrations, dye recipes and poems relative to weaving (in English and Irish) as recalled by the mentors.”

Judith Hoad wrote a book called This is Donegal Tweed, which I borrowed from the library and then purchased online. I really enjoyed reading this book. Judith cycled to many of the people she spoke with to write this book and you can sense her curiosity and passion of the topic on every page.
Then I remembered the TV series Hands, by David Shaw-Smith and his wife Sally, which featured many of the old crafts, including spinning and weaving and making spinning wheels. So I got a copy of that book also, the first edition. There is a second updated edition, but when I bought that later on, I discovered that the Spinning wheel chapter was not in the second edition.   I borrowed some of the DVDs from the Hands series from the library. They were not in my local library, but I was able to requested them on InterLibrary Loan.

Both the Sayres book and the Hands book and DVD feature Jimmy Shiels the spinning wheel maker in Donegal, who has since passed away. His son Johnny now runs that business,
http://www.spinningwheels.ie/, and, among other aspects of it, takes his wheels into schools to teach spinning. 

detail of a Shiels wheel


I do realise that all I’ve done here is recount some of the sites and books I  looked at, here’s a bit of what I have learned along the way.
Basically, yes, the Irish used spindles and later, spinning-wheels; 3 types of wheels were seen in use in western Ireland by Lillias Mitchell, as described above. Lillias referred to 4 types of sheep in particular, as follows: “There are many breeds of sheep in Ireland. The best known to the handspinner are Mountain Blackface, Galway, Border Leicester, Roscommon and Suffolk Down.”
Dyeing was common. Lichens and plants were widely used to dye wool. The mud from the bottom of some boggy holes gave a black colour to wool. Mordants were used to help the dye to ‘bite’.


I had found out a lot, I still wasn’t satisfied. I really wanted to learn more about those early spindles or textiles, so I kept reading and searching.

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