In Search of… Wool in Ireland

Dear readers,

This post is long and almost entirely about wool. If fiber is not your thing, you might want to give it a pass.

Sincerely,

the author

p.s. If you do happen to read it, I’ll provide a little foreshadowing: it has a happy ending.

I was reading from a physical book rather than from my phone the other day. Within the pages, I found an impromptu bookmark that made me laugh. It was the cast off – no pun intended – paper label from a skein of yarn. But a moment later, I sobered up. Right there, in my own home, was a key to unlocking the answers to some of those pesky questions from last month’s travel in Ireland. I kept wondering over and over, “But where are the sheep? Where’s the Irish wool?!?! Wait, why did I even think that Ireland would be full of wool?” The Ireland that I observed around me was full of cows, not sheep. And the sheep I saw certainly weren’t the type to produce great mounds of top quality fleeces. Why were my expectations so out of whack with the realities of the Ireland I visited?

First, the expectation that there’d be lots and lots of sheep and a booming wool trade in Ireland. Let’s get back to that impromptu bookmark. The label I found was once wrapped around a skein of yarn, labelling it “Galway”, a name unequivocally reminiscent of Ireland.

You have to do a lot of scrolling on Google before you get to a listing for Galway that isn’t Irish. In fact, I gave up after 12 pages and decided to search out whether perhaps there’s a town in the US named for the original location. There is. It’s in Saratoga County, New York. But with a population of under 4,000, I’m thinking it’s in no way a contender for general associations. So, Galway. Galway, Ireland. Galway worsted weight, 100% wool yarn, offered by an American company, Plymouth Yarn, and made in Peru. Yes, made in South America. Clearly an American company selling a product imported from a place at which fiber and milling are sourced inexpensively, then promoted with a romantic Irish name to conjure emerald or craggy, coastline and big, wooly Aran sweaters.

“Aha!” I thought. “Now there’s that Ireland equals wool equation again. Ireland and wool have been linked together inextricably in our minds for decades. Where does that come from and why is it so?”

Because here’s the reality of wool in Ireland: it’s a byproduct of the meat industry. Always has been. Wool was not the high value, fortunes-were-built-on-it commodity in Ireland that it was in Britain. Not at all. Know why? Well for one thing, it’s too darned wet in Ireland to properly raise sheep. You can raise them. But it’s not ideal in much of the waterlogged countryside. They get foot rot. There’s not even enough sun to produce a properly white wool. (Fact. Contemporary mills in Ireland blend their locally sourced wool with imported wool to brighten and soften it. Undyed Irish “white” wool is closer to a soft yellow than white.) Yet time and time again, I came across shops filled with items promoting the connection between Ireland and sheep.

See those sheepskins? Not a one of them is from Ireland. Most, alongside the wool from which these many “Aran” sweaters are made, are from Australia, New Zealand and Spain.

Again, most of the wool that is extant in Ireland is taken off Texel, Suffolk, Hampshire and crossbred sheep raised for meat. Their wool is woolish, yes. But if you asked a fiber artist of any flavor (weaver, spinner, knitter, felter, crocheter, etc) whether they’d like to receive a free lot of fleeces from those sheep, chances are the answer would be no. If you don’t know wool, it would be like offering a foodie a bowl of plain rice versus a nice piece of poached Scottish salmon with a side of lightly steamed, first-of-the-season asparagus and oven-roasted potatoes. They’re both plates of food. But one is going to have a depth of flavors, nutrition and experience that far exceeds the other. So it is with wool. There are meat sheep and there are wool sheep. One offers up wool from which it’s possible to make garments to keep you warm and dry. The other offers wool in an infinite variety of textures, colors, durability, softness, luster and length with which to create a whole host of clothes, housewares and utilitarian items. Plain rice is to a gourmet meal as meat sheep’s wool is to wool sheep’s wool. There are a few dual-purpose breeds. But Texel ain’t one of ’em.

The exception in Ireland, as far as I’ve been able to tell, is the presence of the Galway breed. (There’s that name again…) These are native Irish sheep, meaning they were developed and bred in Ireland to flourish in the climate there. Traditionally raised for meat, they also offer a highly useful fleece. Their wool is in the middle of everything by which we measure the characteristics of wool: mid-length in staple, mid-level in crimp and diameter (which helps determine whether something feels soft), middle way between matte and luster. It’s a wool with which you can make good, strong stuff.

Hold that thought, ’cause we’ll come back to it.

However, Galway sheep are not kept in large numbers in Ireland. They are not considered as productive a breed by our modern standards of agriculture as, say, the Suffolk. In fact, they are now a conservation breed, with numbers having gotten as low as just 118 registered Galway ewes in the country in 1993. Since that low point, there’s been a concerted effort to increase the Galway’s numbers to prevent extinction. In fact, another Irish breed, the Roscommon, is widely believed to have become extinct. Most sources list it as such. However, Heather Radl and I were delighted to discover an extant flock on site at Crafts of Ireland, in County Cavan. The proprietor, Sandra Coote, and her family, keep a small flock of Roscommons alongside their herd of cows. Hallelujah and amen, sistah!

Okay, so back to wool in Ireland. Here’s what I found, and even though I now work in travel and love to take fiber enthusiasts to Ireland, I’m going to say it. Wool in Ireland is something of a myth. If you can find me a sheep farmer making money or earning any kind of decent return on wool, I’ll eat my new tweed hat. (I really have one. Made in part from Irish wool. But we’ll get to that later.) It’s just not happening here. The mountains of cabled and textured sweaters you’re seeing are made from Merino – wool grown elsewhere with a nice soft texture that appeals to modern consumers. Those sweaters, along with all the other wooly paraphernalia, is big business in Ireland’s tourist economy. Now I’ve got no problem with offering up items for tourists to buy. I’m a tourist five months out of every year. But I do resent the fact that all this commerce promotes a fantasy. If all of it was in celebration of flourishing sheep farms that produced wool right here in Ireland, I’d be the first in line to buy every tea towel, tote bag and button. Instead, they’re all promoting something that doesn’t exist. Cases in point: I watched a former Irish sheep farmer lift his eyebrows sky high at the very idea of raising sheep for wool production. The owner of a yarn and fiber store near Galway (again that name!) says her neighbors think she’s off her rocker for keeping wool sheep and that it just “isn’t done”. And in many, many tourist shops, I saw the delightful work of Thomas Joseph, a graphic artist who creates humorous and charming illustrations of life in a sheep-infused culture.

Thomas Joseph is from Scotland. He’s making fun of life in the Scottish Highlands. People, it’s an entirely different country!

Okay, so the wool and Ireland connection is a bit of a myth. And a myth is a story, right? It’s made up. Well, yes. But also… no. There’s more to it. Myths sometimes do have factual origins. They exist to explain, to share and insure the continuity of a particular culture’s experience of the world. Myths are stories with a tradition! Myths have purpose.

My theory is that it’s not sheep at the heart of Ireland’s myth. It’s the wool. And what people in Ireland have been doing with it. There may not be much of a history of wool growing, as there is in England and Scotland. However, there is a longstanding tradition of wool processing and finish work (i.e. milling, the making of textiles, wearables, and and fine embellishment done by hand.) Aran sweaters. Irish crochet. Fine lace work. Chunky tweed-style yarns. Oh yes. The Irish may not have grown a lot of the world’s wool. But a great deal of it passed through their working hands. The good news: some still does. And what’s made here has a very particular aesthetic. I think it’s distinctly Irish. I also think it’s well worth seeking out and supporting.

First, Aran sweaters.

Wait. You know what? Although I really, really, really wanted to write this as a single post – and all in one night – it’s not going to happen. There’s so much to tell you! And I’ve absolutely got to get some sleep. Farewell for now, my friends. Parting is such sweet sorrow… And it could be days before I’m able to sit down and write again. But I will! I promise that I will! This is a tale that must be completed. After all, I promised you a happy ending.

Further note: Sources aside from personal interviews and observations to be listed at the end of the next post. To bed I go! 🛌

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