With the Euro having reached parity with the USD and today being St Patrick’s Day, I’m hoping some knitters are considering a trip to Ireland.
One of the most active threads on the Ireland Ravelry group is regarding info for visiting knitters. People also want to know where they can get their hands on an authentic Irish yarn. Visiting knitters are seeking some wooly experience based on images of sheep grazing in the hills of some Craggy Island, with hearty sailors wearing wool jumpers bobbing on the sea nearby. Even if the origins of the Aran jumper are clouded in the mists of marketing mythology dating back to the 1930s. (This can be a touchy subject for Irish knitters, since visiting North Americans, obsessed with authenticity, are known to comment “why did you let this tradition die out?” when actually it was entirely manufactured and not that long ago.)
All of those visions aside, visiting knitters want a proper squish of the good stuff as a take-home souvenir of memories of hillsides dotted with lovely sheep. What they may find is that, yes, there are some great Ireland-based indie dyers, but they use bases from abroad which are, of course, popular and easy to dye. And yes, there is yarn spun here, but much of Ireland’s wool clip goes to Bradford, England for processing, or the mills use fibres from Australia. The Irish wool you see on the sheep in the field, gets clipped and thrown into the melée with any wool of a similar micron count and staple length, mostly over in England. And what mills get back is a mix.
If visitors do any digging at all for the history, they’ll discover a sad economic tale of systematic market manipulation and deprivation dating back to the 1600s which consistently stifled any economic growth around the wool industry in Ireland. It’s enough to “bring out the Fenian in ye,” as my niece might say.
Is this a rallying cry to “Knit Irish”? No.
As I write this point, I’m worried that this might be seen as some Republican rally cry to “not knit with that English yarn” because of something that happened centuries ago. Don’t misunderstand me, I wouldn’t eschew knitting foreign yarn as Louise Scollay from KnitBritish has been doing for a couple of years. Making that statement might raise an eyebrow or two, but isn’t that what it amounts to? The KnitBritish efforts are honourable in that KnitBritish is raising awareness of British breeds and her local industry, which I do think is great!
However, it reminds me of some efforts to ‘buy local’ that misdirect well meaning passion away from supporting sustainable industries in other countries which could increase the quality of life all around with fair trade. Instead, I think it’s important to emphasize we “#KnitLocal” as Louise mentioned on the KnitBritish podcast recently. This ideal in practice connects you materially to where you are and gives you an understanding of what the world around you is made of. Or “KnitLocal” could mean to buy items produced at a smaller scale and where the value chain is shorter and more value is transferred to the source.
So! I wanted to point out there are authentic Irish yarns available but on a much smaller scale. Argue with me if you like! I’m no economist. However, I know that even a single purchase can make a huge impact to these producers and makers, I hope you’ll support them.
Where are all the Irish spinning mills?
From fleece to yarn, there is minimal capability for wool scouring and processing in Ireland. There are a few remaining mills, and the focus from a farmer’s point of view is meat. So from end to end there are challenges if you’re looking for a single-source yarn. Carol Feller’s Contemporary Irish Knits has a great section on Irish yarns and the remaining mills. Carol also wrote an article for Twist Collective “The Last Mills Standing,” highlighting three mills:
Carol focuses on the modern fact that farmers are selecting breeds for meat, and not fleece. And now, people are more selective and prefer softer and softer wools, and Irish farmers aren’t offering a soft enough or clean enough product for use in artisan yarns that people want to knit with. From a manufacturing point of view, Donegal Yarns could argue they need to offer finished designs in Australian merino to fulfill market demands.
I used to assume the limitations were purely environmental in terms of what kind of fleece could be grown here, but there are great sheep breeds that can do well in these climates. I’m highly sympathetic to farmers, and I think opportunities are increasing for farmers to get more value out of their livestock and business, even when market pressures are driving food prices down and threatening food security and sustainability. I think Irish farmers would diversify their flocks if they thought they could get additional value out of them.
Ireland used to produce finer wools and had a burgeoning woolen trade. So much so that the English royalty successfully sought to destroy the competition from the Irish industry.
In the 1600s, England squashed competition from Ireland by putting in laws to limit both the woolen industry and industry in general in Ireland. By the 1660s, Acts were introduced to prohibit the export of Irish wool, cattle, etc. to England or her colonies, and prohibiting the direct importation of several colonial products into Ireland. So Ireland directed trade to France and Spain and prospered until yet again, the industry was systematically destroyed to improve business in England. Instead the linen industry was encouraged in Ireland, a more labour intensive, much dirtier and more dangerous industry overall.
If you want to know more, a detailed history is outlined on Ferguson’s Linen Mill website, and a three-part article on the the The Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners, and Dyers site gives some more context to the somewhat infuriating History of Spinning in Ireland. The lack of woolen mills in Ireland or Irish yarn did not happen by chance and is not because we currently don’t have fine fleece here.
Authentic Irish Yarns
At the risk of excluding all the of the great indie dyers in Ireland (saving that for another post!), I wanted to focus on yarn where the fibre actually comes from animals and farms here in Ireland.
S-Twist Wool The fleece is hand-selected, and hand-scoured using an ecologically friendly scouring method with minimal waste of energy and water. Diarmuid runs his own spinnery producing yarn on a small scale. Here’s a nice in-depth review of the yarn. This fella actually gave me my very first spinning lesson!
Cushendale / Zwartbles sell finished products and yarn from this lovely chocolate fleeced sheep. There are two mills in Ireland that handle raw wool and they won’t process less than an half a ton of wool. So collectively, participating farmers’ clip is combined with other Zwartbles fleece from around the country and sold through Cushendale Mills. See pics of the wool being collected and the wool getting processed at Cushedale Mills on the ZwartblesIreland.com website.
Dupre Knitwear produce made-to-measure handknits for clients. Literally, you give them your measurements, and knitters from their local area knit the finished goods. You can also buy the yarn in kits. Siobhan and her family keep a flock of Leicester Longwool sheep. The fleece from these elegant looking sheep is long, lustrous and in a range of true greys and warm greys. They send it to The Natural Fibre Company in Cornwall who will process and spin the yarn in small batches. I’ve heard the more recent yarn is worsted spun, and even lovelier than a previous year’s yarn.
I’m hoping my list isn’t exhaustive and someone is going to see this point and say “Hey you forgot about this one!” If you know of more Irish Yarns, please comment below!
FYI, if you’ve made it THIS far, you might be interested in this upcoming book: These Islands: Knits from Ireland, Scotland, and Britain