An Irish yarn for St Patrick’s Day

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.

Animal-Range-and-Farm-Illustration-Sheep-with-lambIf 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.

The_History_of_the_County_and_City_of_Cork_-_Google_Play

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 threepart 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.

Updated to add: (Thank you to An Irish Knit Odyssey!)

Know of any more?

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

Learning about wool spinning at New Lanark Mill in Scotland

There’s really so much to see at New Lanark, but I wish I had spent less time looking at fibreglass mannequins, and more time up in the mill on the 4th floor. That was exciting and real.

Visiting the mill

If you’re going, I’d recommend you could plan a full day just around the mill, walking along the river, visiting the museums. There’s plenty to see, but do leave time for this part. The machinery is amazing, and the fella working there was great to talk to. It’s a bit loud/squeaky so it does make conversation difficult.

I am sorry I didn’t get this man’s name. I did ask for permission to take a video/photo. But I wish I had video’d when he was speaking. I was asking him about the machine, how it works, woolen v worsted, and about my findings as I had already swatched up the wool before seeing the mill.

He said “A wool jumper is alive. After you wear it, it starts to change. It takes on the smells… it’s always evolving.”

I love that! It’s very true.

At the time I visited, the fella was loading up the slubbing bobbins to the machine. This illustration from the Woolmark site illstrates the processes well. You can see the spindle on a moving carriage. It spins around and puts thousands of pounds of pressure on the wool, and it pulls and twists.

Here’s a short video I took:

Things I learned

I’m going to leave the yarn review for another post. But I wanted to share some details about what I learned.

First: The big message overall is about the improvements in working conditions. I was very moved by stories from people who had worked there. I felt very impressed by hearing that this was the site of the first nursery schools, and that we have this experiment to thank for so many improvements. To go back to buying from suppliers when you don’t know the working conditions now sounds so barbaric and old. I had read No Logo years before, but I hadn’t considered the history behind the progress.

So I’m more convinced now I want to think carefully about purchases I make.

Processes

The machines in the video above are woolen spinning only. Worsted requires a different machine. This is probably stating the obvious! But it was news to me. This was the plying machine, but we didn’t see this in action.

Below you can see the fine tubes of wool on the huge spools- before they get twisted- is called slubbing not roving (I guessed wrong!). If it was cotton it would be roving. See in the photo below they are loosely lined up fibres in a nice round strand. They break very easily before they are twisted.

After they get twisted onto the bobbins they are very tight and fine. The photo here shows the wool after it’s spun. It’s hard and tight.

I thought he was making a different weight, but he said, after plying it gets washed and it FLUFFS UP….

IT FLUFFS UP to Aran weight!

That is amazing, isn’t it?

Then it becomes the wool they sell in their shop and online 🙂

https://newlanarkshop.co.uk/

I was very impressed.

I wish I could have spent more time there. But you do sense that he is trying to get actual work done.

I hope to visit more mills someday!

Going to Scotland! Visiting New Lanark Mill

I couldn’t quite convince my husband about going to Wales this coming weekend. Where I could “just pop into” Wonderwool. But when he said “Scotland” and “Ferry” it quickly brought to mind, New Lanark Mills.

Nice thing is, you can get both the tour of the woolen mill, but also a good history of “utopian socialism” and the work Robert Owen did to improve workers’ lives. Bonus: It’s also a World Heritage Site.

The fact that it just *happens* to have a yarn shop is, you know, a coincidence, right? By buying the wool, you’re practically donating. I mean it’s a registered charity!

We’re also staying in the mill hotel which I think is a pretty good deal. More info about all the attractions: http://newlanark.org/

Very excited to see an actual woolen mill and see Scotland again.

I supported Dreaming of Shetland

I noticed that I felt compelled to “share” and post about my supporting the Knitsonic campaign, though it’s not the first wooly fundraiser I gave to.

Friends of Deb Robson organized to create a fundraiser for “Dreaming of Shetland” (website). You visit the site, give $20 and you get an e-book. The patterns and articles in the book are donated by friends of hers. 

I really love this idea.  It is helping Deb continue deeper research into the Shetland wools, more info on her site about the background. And bonus: you get some nice patterns! Here you can see the patterns from the book. I love this Walden Waves Wrap.

Thoughts on arts fundraising

In terms of fundraising, I don’t know if the Kickstarter model would have been a greater risk for the Dreaming of Shetlands project. There are other funding platforms which allow you to keep 100% of proceeds if you don’t reach the goal. With Kickstarter if you don’t get the goal, it doesn’t go through. I think this is to get people to think about the minimum budget they would need to fulfill their promises.

With the Dreaming of Shetland direct-funding project, Deb can continue to generate some income from sales. I just don’t know if it missed out from the urgency of a “campaign” and the visibility that kick starter offers. 

Maybe all the site needs are some “share this” links? Also, follow up newsletters to keep people talking about the project. All of the social media tools are there and freely available, but they take time and skills to take advantage of them. I can see why many artists have a hard time accessing it.

Knitsonic – kick starter campaign

I just backed Felicity Ford’s campaign “Knitsonic” more info here. The project has reached it’s goal yesterday!

I have to say, colour work is not at all attracting me. I love the way it looks, but considering I’m struggling with manipulating ONE strand of wool, I don’t think I’m ready to attempt colourwork. With that said, maybe by the time the book comes out, I’ll be able to tackle it.

So I backed it so I’d get a copy of the book. Seems like a pretty good deal to me!

About the campaign

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Because it’s on a blog tour, I had come across it, but the thing which tipped it was this interview. I love that she’s capturing a soundscape…something elusive, and lost. With noise pollution, the sound scape has changed. And so many things not captured.

“The sound of knitting with a belt – which you kindly allowed me to record – is also I think very specific to Shetland. I’m not sure anywhere else has a history of knitting that way, and the clacking of long steel needles and the rhythm of the needles being changed in the belt are a sound which many Shetlanders speak of as being important in their memory of growing up on the isles.”

That touched me because I know the thunking clack of my Nana’s aluminum needles. I was reminded of it when I bought these 6.5 mm metal needles. But they are more of a “tink”. Really not the same sound at all. So funny! Sound and scent are very evocative.

Great fundraising & awareness

I have to say it’s a very effective campaign, and I’m so impressed. She has incredible organization to move people and get action. Few artists have the skills to do these tasks, never mind the wherewithal to stick with it.

  • FB and Twitter account
  • Kickstarter campaign encourages sharing “social proof”. 
  • Blog tour

Felicity is also a co-founder of the Woolvember (manifesto) campaign which I obviously missed since I wasn’t in wool world last November.

It’s quite awesome and I’m fully impressed. I wish the project the best.