Evelyn Shannon has a passion for wool and is on a mission to help change the fortunes of the humble yet versatile fabric.
The Carnew woman, who relocated back to her ‘home place’ 17 years ago after 25 years in Hong Kong, where she worked with the Rugby Union, is doing everything in her power to promote Irish wool.
The industry which was booming in Ireland back in the 1600s went into a slow decline over the generations and all the once-thriving mills became disused.
‘The entire industry all but folded. There used to be a mill in every town but not any more. The only mills that operate in Ireland today do not use Irish wool but instead they import it from countries like China and the UK.’
‘In the past, wool was very commonly used for many things, for example inside horse saddles, as it has much better properties than man-made fibres. Also, wool bedding is said to be better for those who suffer with allergies than goose down.’
‘Even Nike are starting to use wool in their runners because it doesn’t carry odour like other man-made fabrics. It is a natural insulator and breathable.’
Evelyn came to spinning four years ago out of pure necessity.
‘I wanted to knit a tea cosy. I went to about ten different shops and I found that none of them sold 100 per cent Irish wool. The option to buy it just wasn’t there. I couldn’t believe it. They were all acrylic yarns which were no use to me as they melt and I have an Aga stove so I needed it to be pure wool,’ she explained.
Not afraid of getting her hands dirty, Evelyn resolved to process her own wool using techniques that she says have barely changed in centuries.
‘I got a lot of opposition in the beginning and I was told that I didn’t know what was in sheep’s wool and that it had to be cleaned and all that but all it takes is washing with a bit of washing up liquid at 65 degrees,’ she said.
After the ‘scouring’ process, as it is known, and when the fleece is clean, it is left to dry naturally before Evelyn can set about ‘carding’ – teasing out the fibres to prepare them for the spinning wheel.
Evelyn uses a small manual wheel through which she careful twists the strands of wool where they are spun into yarn and eventually gather to a ball of wool, as we are all familiar with.
‘When I first started trying to promote wool, I received a lot of negativity. One argument was that wool was only suitable for carpets. Yes, some is best suited to outer wear but Cheviot wool, for example, is a lovely soft fabric that can be worn against the skin.’
Evelyn enjoys spinning with both white and black wool. Black wool, she said, is often sold off at a cheaper price as the manufacturers aren’t as eager to work with it as they are with white wool which can be dyed to order.
‘I like working with the natural shades and blending them together to see what I can come up with.’
Evelyn uses homemade natural dyes to add colour to some of her hand spun yarn.
‘I do a little bit of dying but I have a friend that is much better at the dying. We use elderberries, maple leaves, apple bark and onion skins which give a wonderful golden colour to the wool,’ she said.
Evelyn said she would like to see the Irish wool industry return to a vibrant place and for the farmers to be afforded the sense of pride that having their wool sold and processed for the home industry would bring.
‘There is a huge disconnect between the shearing of the sheep and a customer picking up a ball of wool in a shop. People don’t have any awareness of what goes on in between and where all the Irish wool goes. They simply don’t associate sheep with wool. We have three million sheep in this country so there is room for a market if we could only exploit it. We are selling all our wonderful wool to other countries and then buying it back again. It costs about €40 to have a fleece sent over to the UK to be processed and sent back again and this could be happening at home. It is mad that we have let the rest of the world get so ahead of us on this.’
‘I would love to see customers thinking about the Irish farmers and supporting them rather than the petrochemical industry. Farmers are only receiving in the region of €1.30 per kilo of wool which scarcely covers the cost of shearing.’
‘Wool is a commodity however and the price is rising again,’ she said.
An experienced craft enthusiast, Evelyn has been quilting and knitting for many years and is a regular exhibitor at the Tinahely Show where she is working hard to introduce more wool-themed exhibits every year.
‘I am a member of the show committee and I have been doing the Quilting Tent for many years. Recently we put on spinning demonstrations and had experts in to speak on the topic. I hope that interested parties can come together on this and make some changes.’
One of the biggest losses created by the decline of the wool industry is the unavoidable loss in skills.
‘We have lost most of our skills. Grading, for example, is very specialised and an apprenticeship lasts about seven years. That’s how much expertise is required and we have nobody who can do this anymore, explained Evelyn.
‘Many wool related skills were passed down from generation to generation and they are very quickly dying out. Even if we got to the point where Irish wool was being processed in Ireland, we would have hardly anybody with the skill level required.’
In a bid to learn more about wool and to make connections with other like minded-individuals, Evelyn attends various wool conferences, the next of which will be in Killarney this month.
She advises anyone interested in Irish wool to visit the Campaign for Wool website.
‘I am more than happy to talk to anyone who is interested or simply to bring people together who can mutually benefit,’ she said.
‘It is so important to get people talking about wool and to get the message out there about what we are missing out on.’