The Last Mills Standing
by Carol Feller
There is no shortage of sheep in Ireland. Wool for knitters is another story...
In some areas of Ireland (rural Donegal, for example) sheep are in such abundance that you literally see them everywhere. Look upwards while strolling on the beach and you’ll likely spot what appear to be suicidal sheep trotting along the side of a sheer sea cliff. Given the abundance of Ireland’s flocks, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that wool production is a very large industry. That conclusion, however, is quite wrong—at least from the knitter’s point of view.
Although the country produces a significant amount of wool for woven textiles, there’s little yarn spun for hand knitting in Ireland. When I began the quest for Irish wool to feature in my book Contemporary Irish Knits (Wiley, 2011), I was amazed by how few mills were left in Ireland. In the 1900s, most towns (provided there was a good, clean water supply) had a mill of some size. Today there are no more than a half dozen wool mills in operation, and of those few remaining, just three commercially produce yarn for hand knitting. So why, in a country filled with sheep, are so few mills spinning wool?
Part of the answer relates to business. Sheep are a huge industry for Ireland, but the animals are raised primarily for eating, not knitting. Since the sheep are bred for the quality of their meat, not their wool, there’s little attention paid to the condition of their fleece. Most Irish sheep roam wild and their wooly coats are quickly covered in sticks, burrs, and other vegetative matter. While technically still usable, the work required to clean the fleece is hardly cost effective and oftentimes, the sale price for the wool won’t cover the cost of shearing.
In recent years, however, an innovative end for Irish fleece has emerged: the use of wool as an alternative to synthetic insulation. The fiber makes an ideal insulating material; it’s naturally fire-resistant, soundproof, breathable, and maintains its loft. To create the insulation, the fleece is scoured and carded into thin sheets that are then layered on top of one another until the desired thickness is achieved, and then mechanically bonded. Black fleece is most often used for insulation purposes, as the difficulty of over-dyeing black wool makes it less in demand (and therefore less costly) than its lighter-colored counterparts.
The outfitting of Irish houses in wool sweaters gives some insight into the country’s damp climate—another factor that impacts the wool industry. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, temperatures in Ireland are mild, but its northern location leaves it lacking in sunshine. This contributes to the famously fair skin of not only the Irish people, but also Irish sheep. Pale sheep, it turns out, grow darker fleece. The wool takes on a yellowish tinge, which is why traditional Irish yarn is much closer to cream (know as báinín in Gaelic) than white. Combine the damp climate with breeding methods that are little concerned with the fineness of the animal’s coat and you get a thicker, coarser fleece. Irish sheep are a hardy lot!
The Irish mills serving the hand knitting market have cleverly addressed these fleecy problems, making the best of the positive qualities of Irish wool, its durability, for example, and building on Ireland’s yarn traditions, such as the distinctive flecks in Donegal wools. Each of the three mills spinning yarn for hand knitters has developed a different focus and style, and uses unique methods to produce a wide range of wool, often blending Irish fleece with fleece from abroad.
Kerry Woollen Mills (www.kerrywoollenmills.ie) produces wool yarns comprised of at least 50 percent Irish fleece; some are 100 percent Irish. The mill, located not far from Killarney town in County Kerry, is housed in the same building that’s sat alongside the river for 300 years. It also has the distinction of being the only mill in Ireland turning out a range of organic yarn, using only fleece from certified organic Irish sheep. Because supply of organic wool fleece in Ireland is both limited and inconsistent, the organic yarns are usually reserved to knit the finished garments that are sold in the mill’s shop and through other vendors. On the lucky occasions when organic fleece is plentiful, skeins of the white Aran-weight yarn are made available to hand knitters. More readily in supply is the mill’s Aran-weight range, which uses a fifty-fifty mixture of Irish and New Zealand fleece. The addition of the latter adds softness to the blend and creates a whiter yarn that is easier to dye. The colors in this range are produced using two different methods. In the first, the yarn is spun and then dyed, producing a rich solid. In the second method, the fleece is dyed before it is spun, allowing the different colors to blend together and creating an interesting heathered effect.
Cushendale Woollen Mills (www.cushendale.ie), located in the bustling, riverside village of Graig-Na-Managh in County Kilkenny, boasts a textile heritage that stretches back to the thirteenth century. In 1204, Cistercian monks established a monastery and mill on the Duiske River and the town grew up around it. By the 1600s Flemish weavers had immigrated to the area, bringing their tradition of woven fabric production with them. The Cushen family, the current owners of the mill, descends from these Flemish weavers. The family purchased one of the original abbey mills in 1925 and have been producing yarn there ever since, using the clean water of the Duiske River for the washing and dying of the wool.
Like Kerry Woollen Mills, Cushendale uses a mixture of Irish and New Zealand fleece, but the yarn they produce is very different. Lighter in weight, and with a much more defined twist, the Cushendale yarn is a superb choice for Fair Isle as the stickiness of the yarn helps hold stitches together for steeking. The yarn is dyed before spinning, starting with a color pallet of up to nine different shades. These are blended together to give the finished yarn a rich, deep color with subtle shade variations. The 100 percent wool yarn is sold in two weights: DK and sportweight. Bouclé mohair, which Cushendale uses extensively in their woven products, is also available.
Donegal Yarns (www.donegalyarns.com), based in Kilcar, County Donegal, is the largest producer of hand knitting yarn in Ireland. Although the mill sources fleece from abroad (primarily from Australia, New Zealand, and Norway), the yarn produced has a very traditional Irish look and feel. The process used to create Donegal’s signature Aran Tweed is fascinating, inspired by the accidental blending of fleece colors back in the days when yarn was spun in homes. Bits of different colors would sometimes find their way into these homespun yarns, creating the flecked, tweedy look we so strongly associate with Irish yarn. Donegal developed a process that creates the same effect on a commercial scale. First, a range of contrasting colors is chosen to complement the primary yarn color. These chosen yarns are then mechanically processed (using their own special, but secret technique) to create compact, brightly-colored balls of yarn called “nepps.” The nepps remain fully intact when blended with the rest of the fleece, resulting in a yarn with bright flecks of different colors that stand out from the rest of the fleece.
There are many imitators, but true Donegal yarn is made from 100 percent wool and is spun using a traditional woolen spinning method and is tagged with a certificate of origin. Note that the mill was previously known as Kilcarra Yarns, and some shops and online retailers may still sell the yarn under that label as well as under the label “Studio Donegal.”
Carol Feller is an independent knitwear designer and knitting teacher. Her patterns for men, women, and children are widely published in books and magazines, including Knitting in the Sun (Wiley, 2009), More Knitting in the Sun (Wiley, 2011), Twist Collective, Interweave Knits, Knitty, and Yarn Forward. You can find her self-published patterns and e-books on her website (www.stolenstitches.com) and on Ravelry (www.ravelry.com/designers/carol-feller). Carol blogs on stolenstitches.com and can also be found on Twitter (stolenstitches), Ravelry (littlefellers), and Facebook (carol.feller). She lives in Cork, Ireland, with her husband, four sons, and a large dog. Her new book, Contemporary Irish Knits, will be published by Wiley in August 2011.