Ireland's relationship with wool
In Ireland, there used to be a Woollen Mill in every county. Wool and linen production were some of our biggest industries. Harnessing our natural resources, our creative abilities, and providing community employment was second nature to us, with wool working skills being passed down through the hands of generations. Our intrinsic flair for culture through poetry, song, and Celtic art was woven into our textiles, as were our stories of the land and the lives that inhabited it. The stitches on an Aran sweater tell a million tales and these textile crafts have always resonated with the hearts of many around the world.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Irish Woollen Cloaks were exported globally from Waterford, and up to the 19th-century Irish wool and natural fibers such as linen, poplin and lace were considered exceptional luxury gifts in the Courts of Europe and given to Royals and Sultans worldwide. We were world leaders in textiles and fashion.
Even in the hard times, such as the Famine, our ancestral lineages of women kept the craft flowing. Ironically it was just after the Famine Years that Irish craft rose to a peak, thanks to our global worldwide community and the initiation of a fair-trade type venture alongside some generous patrons. The 1893 Chicago Fair proved a significant and successful introduction for Aran and Irish woolen handcrafts to enter the global market, a trade that continues to this day.
More recently, since the synthetics industry began to boom in the 1970s, gradually, textile production in Ireland was outsourced. The demand, knowledge, and appreciation of wool and natural fibers began to decline. Fashion became faster and textiles more disposable. The Mills began to shut down. Ireland sold most of its valuable machinery. Today, only a handful of Woollen Mills exist around the country.
Meanwhile, our sheep farmers, due to global trends were forced to change focus from wool production to meat production. The appreciation and value for wool, coupled with the fact there were few industries to process it, fell by the wayside.
Nowadays, the majority of our wool is deemed unsuitable for knitwear and exported to China. And we import most of the wool used for knitwear- primarily merino wool - from New Zealand and China.
Our textile industries have struggled to keep up with consumer demand for fast and easy fashion and textiles.
Sheep farmers are told their Irish wool is worthless. It’s more expensive to shear a sheep than to sell it’s fleece and that has been the way for the past few decades. It continues to decline. Especially as it’s mostly now dependent on the Chinese market and with their recent slowdown in the economy, coupled with the covid pandemic and Brexit disruption, the wool markets have been “floored”.
We believe that Irish wool is not worthless, and with the right care and attention, it is an extraordinary natural fiber with natural anti-bacterial and anti-allergenic qualities, temperature-regulating fibers, and is 100% renewable, compostable and sustainable natural resource, which needs to be re-examined for purpose.