History of Spinning in Ireland

The Guild is delighted to host a new series of guest posts on the subject of the history of spinning in Ireland, by Guild member Elizabeth O’Connor. Tune in each week for the next month for the next instalment. Thank you so much Liz for sharing your research with us, and for writing it with such engaging enthusiasm. 

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 fill the voids in my knowledge.

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? Is there photographic evidence?
  • 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. (Note – you can email hello@weavespindye.ie and we will pass along your message to Liz.)

I started by heading to the Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers website. There I read about the history of the Guild, and an excellent short history of spinning in Ireland, as well as a comprehensive history of The Weavers’ Guild which operated in Dublin between 1446 and 1840.

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 three 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 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). There are also photos of spinners using Donegal wheels, which were a copy of flax wheels brought into Northern Ireland.

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 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. I borrowed some of the DVDs from the Hands series from the library. I searched for them on, and requested them via, http://www.borrowbooks.ie, 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, and, among other aspects of it, takes his wheels into schools to teach spinning.

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.

Tune in next week to read about how the Irish used spindles and wheels. 

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