History of Spinning in Ireland Part Two

Thank you once again to guild member Elizabeth O’Connor for writing this special blog series for us. Tune in for Part Three next week. You can leave any questions you have as a comment on the post, or email hello@weavespindye.ie.

Basically, yes, the Irish used spindles and later, spinning-wheels; three types of wheels were seen in use in western Ireland by Lillias Mitchell, as described previously. Lillias referred to four types of sheep in particular, as follows:

There are many breeds of sheep in Ireland. The best known to the handspinner are Mountain Blackface, Galway, Border Leicester, Roscommon and Suffolk Down.

Dyeing was common. Lichens and plants were widely used to dye wool. The mud from the bottom of some boggy holes gave a black colour to wool. Mordants were used.

The Vikings in Ireland used spindles, and combs to prepare the wool. According to Neil Delamare’s programme, the Last Viking in the Village, urine was the mordant. Viking textiles were created by weaving or nålbindning (naalbindning).

I had found out a lot, I still wasn’t satisfied. I really wanted to see one of those early spindles or a sample of textile, so I kept reading and searching. I will come back later to spinning in Viking and pre-Viking times.

In Judith’s Hoad book, I read about the events of the 1600’s and how British laws affected the Irish Woollen trade. This was something I hadn’t thought about before. In 1663, the Cattle Act was passed in Westminster. This Act prohibited the importation of cattle to England between 1st of July and the 20th of December in any year. This was to protect the English cattle breeders, as up to that point, cattle imported into England from Ireland were selling at prices far cheaper than those bred in England. The cheaper price for Irish cattle was because of the cheaper costs of renting or buying land in Ireland.

A further Act in 1666 extended the prohibition to mutton, butter and cheese. This was once again to protect English farming interests. An Act of Parliament had shortly before this made it a felony for Irish sheep farmers to export wool anywhere but to England. The ban on exports from Ireland of cattle, sheep, pigs, etc had the effect in Ireland of creating an increase in the manufacture and trade in woollen goods, and the establishment of export trade links with countries other than England.

The next step was that the English weavers complained that Irish woven goods were being sold abroad at prices 20% cheaper than the English equivalent and that this was undermining the English weaving trade. At the same time, Irish people who had learned the weaving trade in England returned to Ireland and set up their own weaving enterprises. English weavers who had heard that the cost of living, and the cost of wool, in Ireland was cheaper, also emigrated to Ireland, all of which increased the output from Ireland.

The result of this was that in 1699 the English Parliament passed a law forbidding the export from Ireland into any foreign realm of :

any wool, woolfels, shortlings, mortlings, woolflocks, worsteds, woollen yarn, cloth, serges, bags, jerseys, caps, friezes, druggets, shalloons, or any other drapery stuff or woollen manufacture whatsoever made or mixed up with wool…

The English Parliament did undertake to promote linen manufacture in the place of wool. Nevertheless, the immediate effect on the Irish wool-weaving trade was horrendous. There was a decrease in the variety of cloth produced. Where sheep were kept, it was largely for domestic use. (Another source.)

In 1660 even the export of wool from Ireland to England was forbidden. Other English laws prohibited all exports of Irish wool in any form. In 1673, Sir William Temple advised that the Irish would act wisely by giving up the manufacture of wool even for home use, because “it tended to interfere prejudicially with the English woolen trade.”  George II sent three warships and eight other armed vessels to cruise off the coast of Ireland to seize all vessels carrying woolens from Ireland. “So ended the fairest promise that Ireland had ever known of becoming a prosperous and a happy country.”

Irish linen manufacturing met with the same fate when the Irish were forbidden to export their product to all other countries except England. A thirty percent duty was levied in England, effectively prohibiting the trade. English manufacturers, on the other hand, were granted a bounty for all linen exports.

One long-term effect was that selective sheep breeding and careful rearing of sheep was not a priority in Ireland at this time, at a time when many other countries were taking such matters seriously. In 1812, E. Wakefield in An Account of Ireland Statistical and Political , quoted a John Luccock of Leeds as having said at the end of the eighteenth century, that:

in the hands of the poor cotter tenants, (the sheep) degenerate to a very small size in consequence of bad nourishment when lambs, and the little care taken to improve the breed.’

And in regard to the sheep in Donegal specifically, Mr Luccock said:

“This county is nearly destitute of sheep, there are a few in the mountains, almost as fleet as a grey-hound,…… In regard to the breed, it is impossible to imagine a worse!”

In 1809 a Report on the Annual Sale of Clothing Wool Grown in Ireland showed that efforts to improve the stock and the presentation of fleece for sale had succeeded in eastern counties, at least. This was due in part to the importation of South Down rams into County Wicklow, by the Farming Society of Ireland. Judith details how fleece from the following breeds of sheep were presented for sale by auction in Dublin, on 17th July 1809: South Down, Spanish, Ryland, Merino, Wicklow, Exmore. However, the effort at improvement was not sustained nor country-wide.

Judith writes that in the west, the mountain sheep remain prevalent, as their fleece with hair and kemp can withstand the high rainfall and Atlantic gales of the hills and mountains. The fleece of these mountain sheep is used for carpets and mattresses.
Judith wrote of the situation as it was at time of print in 1987: “
The fleece used for tweed comes from Cheviot or Cheviot x Merino. In lowland areas of Ireland, Suffolk sheep, as well as Cheviot and Leicesters are being introduced into the breeding patterns.”

Judith also wrote of a woman remembering her childhood, pre-1940’s, when she tended her father’s Scots Speckle-face sheep, coarse-fleeced mountainy sheep, high on the mountain above Glencolmcille. Judith writes that the Scots Speckle-faced sheep were introduced to the mountains after the Famine of 1846. She does not say if these sheep were brought into Ireland for the first time at this point, and if so, where from.

Tune in next week to read about the role of the Congested Districts Board.


  1. Thanks for the info. I’m researching a historical fiction novel set in late 1800s Donegal and Australia about a farmer. Need to get my facts straight about sheep 🙂

  2. Thanks for the info. which i stumbled across researching a historical fiction novel about a farmer set in late 1800’s Donegal and Australia. Gotta get my facts about sheep right!

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