Scroll down for articles on the historical Weavers’ Guild, on Lillias Mitchell, and on the formation of the current Guild.
From earliest times fibres have played a vital part in human life, not only as a means of clothing, but also as basic commodities such as wool, silk, linen and cotton, on which entire empires have been based.
Without the skill to spin a thread and to weave it into cloth, textiles as we know them today would not exist. The invention of the spindle for twisting fibres into yarn was on a level with that of the wheel, in terms of importance for the progress of civilization.
The earliest known evidence in Ireland of woven material dates from about 1600 B.C., as pottery from that period shows signs of woven material in which the clay was placed before firing. A fragment of cloth in the National Museum, found in a bog in County Antrim, is dated from at least 700 B.C.
Stone spinning whorls have been recovered from many excavations such as crannogs or lake dwellings of the first and second centuries B.C., although we know that spinning was certainly practised in Ireland in Neolithic times. Fragments of woven fabric and weaving tools have been found in the excavations of Viking and Medieval Dublin.
So important were the skills of spinning and weaving in early Ireland, that the Brehon Laws, written about 600-800 A.D. lay down as part of a wife’s entitlement in case of divorce, that she should keep her spindles, wool bags, weaver’s reeds and a share of the yarn she had spun and the cloth she had woven.
Historically, weaving in Ireland took two forms. Firstly, the rural handweaver working in his own home, supplying his own and his neighbours’ needs. Secondly, from the thirteenth century onwards, the more organised urban craftsmen weaving for a larger domestic and export market. This latter was largely destroyed by restrictive laws imposed on the export of Irish woollen cloth at the end of the seventeenth century and did not revive again until the late nineteenth century.
During the famine years, the tradition of the local handweaver almost disappeared, but managed to survive in parts of Donegal, Mayo and Galway. In the late nineteenth century the Congested Districts Board and the Irish Industries Association helped to get the craft on its feet again. By the twentieth century there were power mills, handweaving mills and the individual weavers operating. The handweavers were also encouraged by the Irish Homespun Society, which was founded in 1936.
The Weavers’ Guild, The Guild of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Dublin 1446 to 1840
In order to counteract the tendency of English settlers to become ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’ and to reinforce the English system of government, Prince John, son of King Henry II of England, gave permission in 1192 to the citizens of Dublin to organize themselves into ‘reasonable’ guilds. The first to avail themselves of these rights were the Merchants, whose guild dates from this time.
The first Charter of the Weavers’ Guild, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary, was granted on 28th September 1446 by the advice of the Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Talbot. The Guild consisted of a Master and two Wardens, and brethren – both men and women. It regulated the art of weaving in the city and suburbs, could sue and be sued, could establish a charity, and hold lands to the annual value of £40. In addition it was entitled to establish a chantry of one priest or more to celebrate in the chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the church of the Friars Carmelite in Dublin. The Guild could examine offences by weavers, their servants or apprentices in the city and within six miles of the precincts, and could imprison offenders.
The Guild’s colours were orange and blue, and it possessed its own seal and coat of arms. Apprentices, before being enrolled, had to appear before the Master and Wardens and be certified by the Clerk that they were of ‘good condition, good conversation and of English nationality’. Their apprenticeship was for seven years, and before being given freedom of the Guild they had to satisfy the Master and Wardens of their weaving skills.
The Guilds developed great political power since each Guild was entitled to return a number of members to sit on the Dublin City Assembly, the governing body of the city.
During the Middle Ages the most colourful event of the year was the Corpus Christi pageant in which scenes from the Bible were enacted by the various Guilds. Each Guild selected an episode which reflected its own work. The weavers were represented by Abraham and Isaac, with an alter and a lamb.
The other great spectacle to which the Guilds were summoned every third year by the Lord Mayor, was the Riding of the Franchises. The original purpose of this procession was to establish the property boundaries of the citizens of Dublin, and in an account of 1488, they are described as going out ‘well horsed, armed and in good array’. As time passed the Riding of the Franchises became a peaceful display of the work of the various Guilds and an opportunity to show their wares to the crowds. Each of the twenty-five Guilds marched behind a vehicle drawn by the most splendid horses obtainable; and on the floats craftsmen worked at their trades. The weavers wore wigs of different coloured wools and threw ribbons and scraps of cloth to the crowds, while beside them walked a motley collection of characters representing aspects of their crafts – Jason and his golden fleece is mentioned in one account.
Riding the Franchises was an expensive business. The Guild Brethren each had to contribute and were fined for non-attendance. The expenses included material for cloaks and costumes, grass for horses and meat and drink for all participating members.
During the seventeenth century a number of French Huguenot weavers arrived in Dublin. They settled manly in the Liberties area of Dublin, west of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where they became part of the existing weaving fraternity. Many of them were experienced silk weavers and their expertise contributed to the establishment of a thriving silk and poplin industry.
A weavers’ hall had been built by the Guild in the Lower Coombe in 1682 and by 1745, when the building of a new hall was required, it was a Huguenot, David Digges La Touche, who advanced the £200 needed. The main room of the new hall is described as being fifty-six feet long by twenty-one feet wide, wainscoted, and hung with portraits of kings and notabilities, and included a tapestry of King George II, woven by John van Beaver.
In 1750 the Guild erected a statue of George II on the front of their hall ‘as a mark of their sincere loyalty’.
There was a surprising variety of woven goods produced in the eighteenth century in Dublin. Mention is made of ‘broad clothes, forest clothes, beavers, druggets, milled woolleen goods, camblets, calimancoes, stuffs, crapes, shags, culgy handkerchiefs, poplins shot with clock reel and rock spun, velvets, Dutch velvets, Geneva velvets, German serges, taffety, Paduasoy and Persians’. In 1771 there were 3,400 looms in operation, of which 1,200 were weaving silk.
The Guild was very careful in keeping up the standard of its manufactures, and imposed fines for inferior work. In 1754 it was advertised that certain cloths should have a lead seal attached, three inches long, with the maker’s name; also the alnage seal, a round lead seal with the crest of the corporation with the words ‘Cor. Weavers’ on one side, and on the other, a harp and crown with ‘C & C Dublin’. Anyone putting on a false seal could be imprisoned.
The end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century were a time of great growth and wealth in the city of Dublin, which was then regarded as the second city of the Empire. Many of the landowning classes built themselves fine houses in Dublin, and vied with one another in grandeur and elegance. The woollen, silk and poplin industries flourished – but not for long. Jealousy amongst English manufacturers caused laws to be introduced to limit the export of woollen cloth from Ireland. This caused severe hardship despite petitions for relief from the Weavers’ Guild to the Irish Parliament. There are accounts in the 1730’s and 1740’s of the weavers attacking the houses of merchants supposed to have stocks of English manufactured cloth. A little later, in 1753, the silk weavers were also in trouble due to the importation of foreign silks.
A poem printed in 1767 describes the weavers in the Guild Procession:
‘The weavers next in order proudly ride
Who with great skill the nimble shuttle guide;
Pity such art should meet such small award;
But what art now-a-days does meet regard’.
An almshouse for impoverished members of the Guild was erected on one side of the Weavers’ Hall in 1767 and about the same time a schoolhouse was built on the other side. These were supported by lotteries, plays, legacies and subscriptions.
The Dublin Society came to the aid of the weavers by establishing a silk warehouse in Parliament Street in 1764, and a woollen warehouse in Castle Street in 1773, for the sale of home produced goods. For a time these measures were a help but the decline had set in. When war was declared against France and raw materials were difficult to obtain, the silk weavers suffered greatly. The rebellion of 1798 completely ruined them. They are described as descending from the Liberties to the lower parts of the city ‘with a certain wildness of aspect, pallid faces and squalid persons’.
The guild system was in decline from the beginning of the 18th century to the year 1840 when it was finally abolished, though it was so firmly established in Dublin that it lingered on much longer there than in other countries. Several causes contributed to the ultimate abolition of the guilds, one being the decline in the fraternal spirit, and its substitution by purely financial considerations in which workers combined against their masters for better conditions.
The exclusion of Irish Catholic merchants and craftsmen resulted in a large number of workers carrying on their trades and crafts illegally as far as the civic laws and guild regulations were concerned. The guilds therefore no longer exercised a monopoly over commerce and industry. The guilds also neglected the crafts with which they were associated, and though they continued to hold meetings and elect officers, they seem to have degenerated into political clubs. Because membership of a guild was a necessary qualification for selection of both municipal and parliamentary representatives, it became common for people unconnected with any craft to apply for, and obtain, membership of a guild.
In 1835 a special Report on the City of Dublin was published by the Municipal Corporation Commission in which it stated – referring to the Guild of Tailors – ‘that as the majority in the trade were not members of the Guild, it did not appear that the trade drive any advantage from the existence of the Guild’. This comment probably applied equally to other guilds including the Weavers’ Guild. As a result of the Report, an Act was passed for the reform of the municipal system throughout Ireland. The Municipal Corporations (Ireland) Act of 1840 marked the end of the guild system. After flourishing for more than 600 years, the guilds disappeared within one or two years, having lost their old civic franchise, which now was replaced by a more democratic system of election to civic government. (Only the guild known as the Company of Goldsmiths of Dublin survives and still protects the integrity and high standard of its craft. Its Guildhall is in the Assay Office, Dublin Castle.)
The Weavers’ Hall was demolished in 1965. Indeed, the only original guildhall still standing is the Tailors’ Hall in Back Lane. The tapestry of George II woven by John van Beaver, which hung in the Weavers’ Hall, is now in the Metropolitan Museum of New York. An oak chest exists measuring six feet by three feet by three feet with the inscription ‘This is the Corporation of Weavers’ Chest ann. 1706. Nathaniel James, Master; William Pierce and Thomas How, Wardens’.
The tradition of silk and poplin weaving in the Liberties continued through the nineteenth century and in some cases into the twentieth century, with firms such as Frys, Pims, Elliots, Atkinsons and Mitchells. Elliots, the last factory in production, closed in c. 1965.
Some silk and poplin weaving is still done in Fumbally Lane in the Liberties, Dublin, by P.C. Weavers.
Veronica Rowe, 1991
Lillias Mitchell 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.
Lillias was born in Dublin in 1915. Her artistic talents were recognised at an early age and in her teen age years she studied painting and sculpture. In 1943 she was invited to North Wales to teach clay modelling which she did most successfully. She was also required to teach weaving under the direction of the famous weaver and teacher Ella McLeod. And it was then that her great love of weaving spinning and dyeing was born. Three years later in 1946 she returned to Dublin and set up a school of weaving called the Golden Fleece with a friend Morfudd Roberts. In 1949 Morfudd Roberts left Ireland to take up a teaching post in England, and Lillias, realising that she could not manage the school on her own, was encouraged to approach the Department of Education. There in 1950 she met the then Minister of Education who invited her to set up a weaving department in the National College of Art. Lillias then went to Sweden to extend her weaving knowledge by attending a summer school and to purchase looms. In 1951 she returned with the looms to set up the Weaving Department in two rooms in the National College of Art. As the Weaving Department expanded it was moved into two prefabricated huts in the garden of Dail Eirann and there Lillias taught weaving spinning and dyeing until she retired in 1979. Then the Weaving Department moved again with the College to its present location in Thomas Street.
In 1975 Lillias Mitchell founded the Irish Guild of Weavers Spinners and Dyers and took a great interest in its development. Lillias kept in constant touch with the Weaving Department at the National College of Art and Design over the years and for many years we had the Jesse Mitchell Tea Party in weaving and she presented book prizes to winning students. When the Jesse Mitchell Trust closed in 1994, Lillias sponsored the Lillias Mitchell Prize in the Royal Dublin Society’s National Craft Competition.
After her retirement Lillias did a lot more painting. In 1979 she was elected to membership of the Royal Hibernian Academy and exhibited many times with them during the 1980s and 90s. She was very pleased to be made an Honorary Member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1995. She had been painting all of her adult life and was an exhibiting member of the Watercolour Society since 1940. On account of her distinguished artistic career, she was made an Honorary Life Member of the Royal Dublin Society in 1993.
It is difficult to do justice to all of her diverse talents and achievements. Lillias was proud of the weaving tradition in her family and she loved researching traditional Irish spinning dyeing and weaving. Three of her books have been 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.
The Golden Fleece Award is an artistic fund established as a charitable bequest by the late Lillias Mitchell, who died in January 2000. She left this fund in place as part of her legacy to establish an annual award of approximately €20,000 overall.
The Golden Fleece Award aims to support and promote a wide range of artistic creativity, recognising excellence in painting, textiles and sculpture, glasswork, and all the traditional crafts. The Award was launched in 2001 and is now widely recognised as a distinctive stamp of creative support in the realm of Irish art.
The revival of interest in our weaving inheritance, and in the use of vegetable and lichen dyes led to the formation of the Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners, and Dyers in February 1975 by Lillias Mitchell, then Head of the Weaving Department of the National College of Art in Dublin.
In September 1980 three weavers – Terry Dunne, Cathy MacAleavy and Mary O’Rourke – who had trained in the Dun Laoghaire College of Art with Muriel Beckett, ran a four week course in Spinning, Dyeing and Weaving at Glenasmole, County Dublin.
Such was the enthusiasm amongst the students that they decided to form a society to be known as ‘The Weavers Group’. Their first venture was a combined sale and exhibition held with the Craft Potters’ Society in December 1980 in the Country Market Shop. In 1981 The Irish Guild and The Weavers’ Group amalgamated using the title of The Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners, and Dyers.
Over the years the Guild’s activities have included workshops in weaving, spinning, dyeing and basket making. It has held several major workshops with tutors from abroad, giving members the opportunity to expand their knowledge and technical skills.