Weaving in Ireland can be traced back to the Mesolithic period. There is a fish trap on display in the National Museum of Ireland that is made from interwoven sticks. The conical shaped trap has been carbon dated to circa 5000BC. We also have evidence from this period that at Mount Sandal in Co. Derry overlooking the river Bann huts were constructed using posts with willow or similar soft wood branches woven through them.
Because of the delicate nature of cloth we do not have too many examples of early Irish weaving.
Weaving is mentioned in the Breton laws from 600 – 800AD where it states when a woman divorces she is entitled to her needles, weaver’s reeds and a share of the thread she had spun and the cloth she had created. A woman was not considered ready for marriage until she had spun the yard for a set of household lined. The term ‘spinster’ derives from this practice. (www.weavespindye.ie/history)
The Vikings in Ireland produced large quantities of woven cloth for trade and the production of clothing and sails. In 2017 a perfectly preserved 1000 year old weaving sword was found in an archaeological dig in Cork.
There was trading in cloth from Ireland to England from at least the 10th century. There is evidence that shows there was extensive production in woven cloth at crannogs and ecclesiastical sites in Ireland. (www.weavespindye.ie/history).
The mantle, a thick heavy woolen cloak and bright saffron tunics were widely worn by the native Irish in the 15th and 16th centuries. In an effort to stamp out the Irish identity after plantation these items of clothing were prohibited by Henry VIII but needless to say this had the opposite affect on the Irish and they continued to wear them. (Ziegler, 2013, pp. 14)
Later examples of woven material found from Ireland include ‘The Moy Gown’, Co. Clare 1350 – 1500 and the ‘Shinrone Gown’ Co. Tipperary, 1500’s.
A lot of the clothing that has been excavated in archaeological digs has been preserved in bogs so the clothing is stained brown but we have evidence that cloth would have been dyed in many bright colours.
From the earliest times women would have spun thread and woven cloth in the home and daughters would have grown up learning the craft at their mother’s side.
Apart from cloth many household and farming objects would have been woven from straw, rushes, grass and other materials.
In the 17th century the growing and weaving of flax was encouraged in Ireland and a thriving industry was built up in Ulster. The introduction of flax changed many aspects of social life at the time. Women would congregate together to spin flax. As they spun they would tell stories and sing and sometimes hold a dance after the work had been done. At that time the Irish were exporting large amounts of cheap woolen cloth to England and undermining the industry there. Restrictions were put on the export of wool to England and the linen industry actively encouraged by distributing Dutch or flax spinning wheels to households across the northern part of the Ireland. (www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com-irish-linen).
Wool continued to be spun and woven in households all over Ireland for personal and local use. Various types of spinning wheels would have been used for this. In areas like Mayo and Galway the ‘big wheel’ where the spinner stood would have been used. A smaller wheel where the spinner sat was used in areas like Kerry. This was the method used from producing cloth in Ireland up to the industrialization of the trade.
Raw fleece from the sheep was lightly washed to remove dirt, twigs and burrs etc, but not the natural waterproof oil called lanolin. The fleece was now ready for dyeing. Various types of plants and minerals were used in the dying of material. Plants and berries were used for dyeing such as blackberry for purple, dock leaves for yellow, heather for brown and bog water for black. Some red colours were produced using imported materials such as the Cochineal beetle from Spain and North Africa. Wools were also left undyed in their natural white and brown colours. To stop the dyes from fading and running they needed to be fixed with a mordant. Various items were used in this process including metal salts called alums. Another mordant used was stale urine as this also contained salts.
Sometimes at this stage different types of wool from various sheep breeds was used. This gave differing textures to the wool.
The wool now needed to be prepared for spinning. A process called carding was used. A piece of wool was placed between to boards with metal teeth and then teased out so that all fibers ran in the same direction. The wool was then rolled into a small cigar shape called a ‘rolag’ and put to one side. When enough ‘rolags’ had been made it was now time to spin the thread.
The earliest types of thread spinner was a drop spinner. The rolag is attached to a weight and twisted between the fingers. The weight of the spinner draws the rolag out and forms thread. The earliest forms of the drop spinner was a simple stone and we even see dried potatoes being used in Ireland. Drop spinning was a very laborious and slow process but was sped up with the invention of the spinning wheel in China around 1000AD.
Once the wool was spun into thread it was now ready for weaving. Threads are hung vertically on a frame called a loom and held in place with weights. These are called the warp threads. Then some of the warp threads are held open and shuttle pulling a thread called the weft is send across the loom between the warp threads. The warp threads and then swapped over and the shuttle is sent back across the other way and roll of cloth builds up.
Another traditional technique that was used was fluffing and napping. After weaving the cloth was sometimes treated with treacle and fluffed out using a carder. This technique was used from the Middle Ages onward to make outer garments like cloaks waterproof.
This way all cloth was produced up to the Industrial Revolution. With the invention of the steam engine it was possible to power much larger looms and produce much larger amounts of cloth. Cloth producers in Britain became extremely wealthy by trading with the colonies of the British Empire. Although some people became rich from this trade the vast majority of people working for them had to endure terrible working conditions and poor wages.
Since the end of the Second World War and the break-up of colonial empires the production of cloth has mainly shifted to the Far East where wages and working conditions are much worse than in Europe.
There is an exhibit of clothing from the Aran Islands. The clothing was produced on Innis Mor in 1936 on behalf of the Folklore Commission. It is interesting to note that the patterns for Aran jumpers seem to have originated in Scotland and were not commonly worn on the Islands before that time. The women’s shawls were not produced locally but were imported from England.
On our field trip to the Museum of Country Life there are various exhibits devoted to weaving in Ireland. The collection includes spinners, cards, spinning wheels and looms. There is also a collection of woven items made from straw including, yokes, saddles and furniture such as chairs and baskets. There are also straw costumes that were worn by various groups such as the Straw Boys or the Wren boys. A major feature of these costumes is woven straw hats or masks so the performers could remain anonymous during their performances. Other items include cailleachs. Cailleachs are a type of decorative knot made from the last sheaf of wheat cut at harvest time. Harvest time in Ireland was celebrated at the Festival of Lugnasa and the cailleach would have been hung in windows or above tables at this time to celebrate the successful harvest.
At our weaving workshop we made a cross using a ‘God’s Eye’ Weave. This is done by crossing two sticks and weaving the thread over and under them. The item produced is similar to a St. Brigid’s Cross and is also used as a talisman for protection. The second item we produced was a braid using a process called peg weaving. A thread is looped around two sticks in a figure of eight weave and then pushed down onto two warp threads and the loose ends tied off. This is a very simple form of weaving and can be used to produce items like bracelets. It was interesting to see how simply items could be woven by novices like ourselves but it also gave an appreciation of the beauty and complexity that was achieved by weavers in the past.