Yarn spinning is seeing a revival on a remote West Cork peninsula

The traditional and ancient craft of yarn spinning is undergoing a resurgence on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula, writes Áilín Quinlan
Yarn spinning is seeing a revival on a remote West Cork peninsula
Examples of the work done by the Sheep’s Head Yarn Group

IN A tiny village on a remote West Cork peninsula, a young mother sits by a spinning wheel.

Her name is Jemima Wallis-Eade and she’s one of a large number of women on the peninsula who are skilled in the traditional crafts of knitting, crochet and yarn-spinning.

They’ve just established a colourful pop-up summer yarn-crafts shop, showcasing a range of knit and crocheted products, and the first of its kind in the rural village of Kilcrohane.

Jemima plans to give lessons in the use of the spinning wheel this summer — she expects to have two more working spinning wheels in place shortly, so that she can provide tuition in this ancient craft whose roots stretch back to 30,000 BC.

There’s growing interest in the traditional crafts, according to the 29-year-old, who got her first spinning wheel for Christmas four years ago.

“Crafts are going through a revival at the moment. More people seem to want to get involved and to learn how to do it for themselves.

“A lot of people want to learn the craft skills now, as opposed to even five years ago or more,” observes the mother-of-three.

“There are a surprising number of spinning wheels around. Only yesterday, a friend stopped by and mentioned he had two of them at home — they belonged to his mother.

“It’s amazing how many people have spinning wheels tucked away in an attic or a shed and don’t know how to use them, or think the skill is obsolete or don’t even realise what they are,” says Jemima, who lives with her partner and young family in the town of Durrus, further back the Sheep’s Head Peninsula.

An enthusiastic member of the recently-formed Sheep’s Head Yarn Group, Jemima learned knitting and crochet from her grandmother, who lived in Durrus for 20 years, and from her mother and aunt.

“I’ve always been around people working with yarn — my grandmother knitted a lot. She knitted Aran jumpers.

“My mother and aunt also taught me knitting and weaving and crochet. Our family is quite crafty and creative in different ways.” It wasn’t until after she had her children, however, that Jemima started to knit and crochet in earnest — looking for a rainy-day activity for her two young sons, she eventually stumbled across the art of yarn-spinning by accident in 2011. Quickly bitten by the spinning bug, it was only a matter of months before she purchased her first, fold-up wooden spinning wheel online for €450.

“I fell in love with mixing different fibres together and seeing how the texture came out. I started dying the wool with food colouring,” she says, adding that she knitted some cowls and hats from the yarn and even some of her colourful home-spun yarns away as gifts — but only some!

“Some of it I would keep just to fondle,” laughs Jemima, adding that she now sources her sheep and alpaca fleeces from local farmers.

An example of the work done by the Sheep’s Head Yarn Group
An example of the work done by the Sheep’s Head Yarn Group

These she processes by hand and will be selling this summer at the new Sheep’s Head Yarn shop in Kilcrohane.

“I hope to purchase some extra ones in the coming weeks and start giving spinning wheel lessons in Kilcrohane later this summer,” she says, adding that she also plans to give spinning demonstrations at the upcoming Townlands Carnival in Macroom, from Friday July 8 to Sunday July 10.

“For me part of the attraction is that I’m part of a very old tradition which has its roots as far back as 30,000 BC and further. Another part of it is that whether you spin fine yarns for lace, or chunky bulky yarn, your hand-spun yam will be absolutely unique!” Three things spurred Londoner Niamh Egerton to found both the Sheep’s Head Yarns Group and the successful Sheep’s Head Yarn Festival in 2015.

First, the mother-of-three, who now lives in Ahakista, has always loved wool and knitting.

Second, rural Ireland doesn’t host the big knit-and-stitch shows which are hugely popular throughout the UK.

And thirdly, when the former florist arrived to live on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula in 2010, she began knitting for the Sheep’s Head Producers Market which was set up in Kilcrohane in 2011 aimed at showcasing the work of food and craft producers on the peninsula. Very quickly, Egerton discovered that she was one of a large network of skilled crafts-workers scattered throughout the region.

“I noticed there were a lot of yarn producers besides me - they were doing knitting, crocheting, fibre blending; there was even a silk maker,” she recalls. This led to a brainwave:

“I thought we should have a go at running a festival to show the skills and teach them to interested people.” Up to then she says, she had believed that knitting and other crafts, had died a death, “Crafts like this seemed to lose popularity from about the mid-nineties and I noticed a lot of knitting shops had started closing down.

“It wasn’t just the yarn shops but the bead shops and the art and crafts shops – it all seemed to be disappearing.” However, she says, when she arrived on the peninsula, crochet-lovers and knitters came out of the woodwork everywhere she went:

“There were still a lot of people on the peninsula who do yarn craft and didn’t sign up to the Producers’ Market, so there was definitely interest there. “ The first ever Sheep’s Head Yarn Festival, which was held in May 2015 was a roaring success.

“When we were planning it, I thought we’d have about six workshops teaching everything from broomstick crochet to cable stitch and textured knitting — but we ended up with 16 workshops.

“We had people coming from all over Ireland and the UK to our workshops — there was even a lady from Canada who organised a holiday around the festival!”

Examples of the work done by the Sheep’s Head Yarn Group
Examples of the work done by the Sheep’s Head Yarn Group

Around the same time Niamh established the Sheep’s Head Yarns Group, a network of around 20 producers based on the Sheep’s Head and all over Ireland.

In March of this year, a few months before the second Yarn Festival, which took place in the village at the end of May, the Yarns Group set up a pop-up shop in the centre of Kilcrohane. Run by volunteers and selling everything from knitwear to crochet, hand-dyed yarns by producers from all over Cork, Dublin and Laois, bags, knitted dolls and teddy bears, scarves, blankets and gift cards and offering drop-in advice sessions, the little store will be open until September.

Given the level of interest in both the shop and the festival — “we’re already getting queries about next year’s festival,” reveals Niamh, the group is now putting together a more formal timetable of classes which will run at the shop through July and August.

The palpable resurgence of interest in these age-old skills is not just restricted to the Sheep’s Head Peninsula however — for friends Mim Hill and Teresa O’Sullivan, the opportunity to open their own wool and craft shop was just too good to pass up.

Just before Christmas the duo set up their quirky wool shop in the premises of a former pub in the town of Dunmanway.

The Crafty Bar offers all kinds of wools and hand-knitted baby gifts, along with a professional embroidery service and items for special occasions.

A lifelong knitter, Mim beaome increasingly aware of an upsurge of interest in knitting over the past five years or so.

During a period spent working in an interior design shop in Skibbereen which offered knitting lessons – she worked for two years there until just before she set up her own shop last November - Mim noticed a steady stream of people coming in to ask about knitting and crochet.

“I notice younger people are more interested now than before, and people have a lot more ‘meas’ on, and more interest in, hand-knitting. There’s an interest in it now,” she says adding that she has a sizeable number of younger customers; school-age knitters who are being taught the skill by teaches as well as trendy twenty-and thirty-somethings who enjoy knitting caps, scarves and baby blankets. “People like to buy the hand-made stuff – or to make it themselves,” she says.

As a result, she and Teresa are planning to hold classes in the shop next autumn, because, as fellow knitting enthusiast Niamh Egerton declares: “It’s very important to pass on these skills, otherwise they will get lost.”

Find Sheep’s Head Yarns on Facebook or Twitter or visit www.sheepsheadyarnfestival.weebly.com  

The Crafty Bar, Dunmanway is on 087 2223262 or find it on Facebook.

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