Woollen blankets were abandoned long ago, but a new generation is rediscovering the luxury of wool, and the craftsmanship of our weavers. Carol O’Callaghan runs an appreciative hand over some of the latest creations.
When things go out of fashion we lose appreciation, even if the quality of materials and workmanship are impeccable.
That thought is prompted by a recent recollection from early childhood of Dripsey blankets.
I didn’t care a jot for them at the time, as my preference was for the uncomplicated, lightweight duvet which had replaced blankets as the traditional approach to bedding, and in many cases relegated the beauties of Dripsey to the job of lagging energy-inefficient immersion tanks.
In adulthood, and setting up home, I was given a second chance when a South African aunt, who had received a bale of blankets from her Irish in-laws on her marriage, donated two of them to me.
They were handy for picnics and lying out in the garden, but I later gave them away to a charity appeal for the homeless.
It’s taken until now for me to appreciate the value of these products, including the quality of wool, the weavers’ skill and how the blankets were built to last, so I’d get on to mothers, grandmothers, aunts and grand-aunts as you’re sure to find one who has a Dripsey — or its west of Ireland counterpart, the Foxford blanket — which they got as wedding presents and are now lost and forgotten in the back of the hot press.
If that fails, I’m afraid you can’t buy an up-to-date version, as Dripsey Woollen Mills no longer operates. But happily, Foxford is still in existence, designing and making blankets and throws for the modern consumer.
Originally founded by the Irish Sisters of Charity in 1892 in County Mayo, Foxford survived when so many other mills have long since gone out of business, and has since developed an international reach as the products are not only in Ireland but also in shops around the world.
Modernising has been key, including tapping into the skills of known designers like Helen McAlinden who is the creative mind behind a new collection of textiles.
Long gone are the once-famed blue stripes on a cream background, only to be replaced by bed linen, blankets and throws in modern, colourways on patterns of check, box and spots.
Ranges like Nordic Red and Parma Blue — the latter they say inspired by the Italian dawn in a Botticelli painting — show design influences extending beyond Ireland.
One blanket goes by the particularly appetising name of Tomato and Bone so there’s a little wit thrown in too (from €83).
An adorable option is the baby range featuring little items with the potential to be turned into a little one’s beloved blankie in time.
Available in a choice of blue or pink and a mixture of both, in cosy checks and little spotty finishes, they’re silky soft for wrapping around a tiny, delicate person.
For a native Irish person living abroad with a new baby, something like this would be a lovely gift with a connection with home, and at €35 an affordable one too.
From County Mayo, weave a path south east to discover Cushendale Woollen Mills, tucked away in the beautiful, charming Kilkenny village of Graiguenamanagh.
Wool trading in the area goes back to medieval times to 1204 when the Cistercian monks set up shop, followed by immigrant weavers in the 1600s who brought Flemish woollen fabric production with them.
But it was more recently — two hundred years ago to be exact — that the descendants of one of the immigrants, the Cushen family, started the business which thrives today.
Using Irish wool, merino lambswool and mohair, the small team of weavers makes throws and blankets.
But for a product with a story, take a look at their Zwartbles collection, made from the wool of the ultimate baa-baa black sheep — a breed known by the same name, Zwartble.
Except for a white blaze stretching from the animal’s poll to its snout; a white tip on its tail as if it has been dipped in paint, and sometimes white socks, the animal is all black.
The blankets made from its wool are an almost two-dimensional representation of the sheep, at least in terms of their colourway, and provide the buyer with a story to give with the gift of authentic, handmade Irish.
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