‘We won’t fix the poor wool prices overnight’: Exploring options for Irish wool

More could be done by the Government and farming organisations to explore options for increased use of Irish wool, according to Sandra Coote of Cavan-based Crafts of Ireland.

“One of the biggest obstacles is the lack of a wool scouring facility in this country; a basic requirement for the processing of wool. Home processing is possible, but only for small quantities of wool.

“Sending our wool to the UK to have it processed and spun into knitting wool is not viable; the cost of the finished product is prohibitive to buyers,” Sandra said.

Other options, she mentioned, include using wool as insulation in building.

“Products from the UK are available to Irish builders. But, with the vast amount of wool that we produce on an annual basis, and the price that farmers are receiving for their wool, I think this is among the options that should be explored.

We won’t fix the poor wool prices overnight; but certainly a start could be made by our farming organisations to look at options.

Seizing the opportunity

“My interest in wool spinning was sparked on a trip to visit friends in Anglesey, Wales,” Sandra said. “One of the local villages has a drop-in craft centre where they taught crafts to tourists.

“I seized the opportunity to get a short wool spinning lesson. That was the beginning of my journey into learning more about wool, spinning wheels and the different methods of wool spinning,” she said.

That Christmas, Sandra’s first spinning wheel arrived. She followed by getting lessons from Irish spinners and endless hours of practice.

“I had spent years working with sheep on my father’s farm and had exhibited sheep for a number of years at local agricultural shows. That made me aware of the difference in wool types and was a good basis for my learning.”

From the time she started spinning, Sandra was determined to master the art properly and looked at doing exams in the subject. She is a member of the Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers (IGWSD), which is affiliated to the Associated Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.

Sandra completed a certificate course in wool spinning, with the assistance of an exam co-ordinator in the UK. “I was the first person in Ireland to undertake the syllabus. I was delighted to achieve a distinction in my exams and am awaiting my certificate.

“The IGWSD has a membership of 80 spinners and weavers, and thankfully this is on the increase with regular events and gatherings being organised on a regular basis. Since I started spinning, I endeavoured to use local wool which I sourced from the farmers in my area,” Sandra said.

Preservation of Roscommon Sheep Breed

However, her ambition was always to use wool from her and her husband, Alan’s farm in Virginia.

“My husband’s family always had a small flock of sheep on the farm, but changed totally to beef in the late 1990s.

“Every so often I would raise the subject of purchasing some sheep, but never pursued it until we discovered that Noel Kiernan (a well-known conservationist), in conjunction with the Irish Rare Breeds Society, was calling on farmers to help in the preservation of the Roscommon sheep breed.”

This immediately piqued the couple’s interest. They were a traditional Irish breed of sheep that produced a high-quality of wool. In late August, five female Roscommon sheep arrived on the farm – to be followed by a ram.

“Currently, we use Irish wool for teaching wool spinning classes, for dyeing with natural plants and for needle felting.

“Needle felting is a relatively new craft in which a sharp barbed needle is used to interlock the wool fibres. When the barbs catch the scales on the fibre, it causes them to tangle and bind together. This craft allows for the creation of both pictures and 3D objects using wool fibres.

Needle felting is gaining popularity because of the therapeutic and creative nature of the craft and the classes we run are becoming very successful.

“Most of the 3D pieces that we make in workshops are farm animals. I am currently working on making a miniature of our old Hereford cow who is now 21 years old.”

‘Exploring the options’

With Christmas approaching, upcoming classes will focus on making robins, angels and all things seasonal. Wool spinning lessons are also available on an ongoing basis.

“Luckily our craft business is growing steadily due to the increased interest in the type of workshops that we run; both in modern and heritage crafts.

“This, coupled with our expanding collection of antique stocking knitting machines, which many people would like to view and use, and our antique sewing machines and spinning wheels, means that we now require additional crafting and display space to accommodate our customers’ needs,” said Sandra.

As a result, she has started work on a workshop extension of just over 500ft². “This will accommodate a craft museum; a small food service area; and more space to run wool spinning and other workshops,” she said.

Plans for 2019 include increasing the number of workshops available and incorporating wool events into their diary.

“We also intend to grow flax for spinning as an experiment,” Sandra said. It’s all about exploring the options.