“It was very nice to pass by the neighbouring houses on the long winter nights and hear the “Whirr” “Whirr” of the spinning wheel going inside.”Mrs Bohan, Aghaboneill, Co. Leitrim, 1938, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0212, Page 087
In a post-industrial world where clothing of all colours, fibres, and styles are just a few clicks away, it can be easy to find ourselves removed from the process of creating cloth. One piece of equipment in particular, the spinning wheel, has come to signify our past with cloth and clothing. It will be a familiar sight to most in some form, its ubiquity and importance throughout Europe has cemented its place in our folklore and our storytelling. But the spinning wheel, despite its humble imagery, is a complex item in terms of its social, economic, and folkloristic influence on Irish society. It is, by its very nature, a dynamic piece of equipment, not made to sit still like it’s depicted in the images of the past, but designed to move, to make noise, to create. It is a sensory object that was integral to everyday life throughout Ireland for a significant part of our recorded history. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that the spinning wheel features heavily throughout the manuscripts, books, and photographs of the National Folklore Collection.
This blog hopes to introduce the reader to the Irish spinning wheel so that they might gain a greater understanding of the process of producing yarn, but I also invite you to consider the senses of spinning, those parts that cannot be so easily captured through text or through photography, including the sounds of the wheel as it whirred round and round, and the smell of the freshly sheared fleece.
We all know that wool comes from sheep but the act of processing the wool and turning it into yarn might be foreign to many today. Sheep were usually shorn in the early summer when the weather began to get finer and the evenings longer. Anyone who has touched natural fleece will tell you that it feels very different to our soft woollen clothes. The fleece had to be washed well before it could be used, often in the cold water of a local stream.
But why spin yarn? Spinning is the act of adding twist into fibre, bringing incredible strength and stability to the material and it is an integral part of creating cloth. The importance of the spinning wheel was not underestimated in the days of past and it was the spinning wheel at the heart and hearth of every home across Ireland.
“In the olden times spinning and weaving were the chief industries in all the country houses.”Mrs Roche, Gort, Co. Galway, 1937, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0050, Page 0119
Carding is the process of manipulating the fibres in wool in preparation for spinning. Traditionally, in Ireland, this was done using a pair of large wooden paddles with metal teeth called carders. The wool, now washed and sorted, is added to the carders in small sections. Next oil is added to allow for easy movement of the fibres. Various types of oils were used depending on availability, with vegetable and rapeseed oil being common, though even butter or goose fat was used. With the smell of the washed fleece and oils in the air, the woman raked the carders together. Often groups of women and young girls would gather together to do this.
A detailed account of the spinning process was recounted by Mrs. Mary O’Malley of Achill in 1948, collected by Bríd Ní Mhaolmhuaidh for the Irish Folklore Commission. Mrs. O’Malley recalls how special currant cakes would be prepared for the group of young carders who would:
“.. be singing sora mile grads and come-all ye’s of all kinds, and they’d be fixing matches for each other, and everyone would try to have a special bit of gossip for the woman of the house, and at night the neighbouring boys would come knocking at the windows, and there would be great excitement among the girls, and they wondering who was outside.”NFC 1104.
This social aspect of spinning, the laughing and singing voices as the carder’s metal teeth scraped back and forth, is unfortunately difficult to find among the visual records. The dynamic nature of the carders is captured more successfully. Firstly, in the wonderful sketches of Simon Coleman, where a simple directional arrow suggests the movement of the carders to and fro as she rolls her wool.
This movement is also captured in a photograph taken by Caoimhín Ó Danachair at the Carna Show in Galway where the camera struggles to capture the motion of the woman’s work as the crowd looks on. Once the wool has been rolled into small rolls, sometimes called cobbin, they are ready for spinning on the wheel.
There were three primary types of spinning wheel used in Ireland. Two of these were ‘Tuirne Mór’, or ‘big wheels’, where the wheel must be turned by hand while holding the yarn in the other. The last type, the ‘Tuirne Beag’ (the ‘small wheel’) is also known as the Dutch type or flax wheel. As the name suggest, it was originally designed in Europe to spin flax but once imported into Ireland, it was used to spin wool also.
Much of the published work on Irish spinning and weaving we owe to Lillias Mitchell, craftswoman, teacher, and artist who, recognising the lack of systematic study on this important part of Irish history and tradition, dedicated much of her extensive career to tracking and publishing information about spinning. She turned to the Irish Folklore Commission for help with her research, as the Commission had actively been collecting information about spinning and weaving throughout the country. In 1978, Mitchell published her seminal text Irish Spinning, Dyeing and Weaving drawing on information provided by the IFC, and aided by the Department of Irish Folklore, as well as her own experiences and research.
The type of wheel used was largely regional. In the west, the spinner would stand next to her Big Wheel, moving back and forth as she worked the yarn. A ‘low style’ variation in which the spinner could be seated as she worked was common in the south of the country. The north, renowned for its linen industry, is where the flax wheel was most prevalent.
The rhythmic sound of the wheel as it turns was distinctive and no doubt would have been heard as you passed a house on a cold winter’s evening or lulled you to sleep as you sat next to the crackling fireside, the smell of turf in the air. Spinning was usually done inside next to the hearth. The investment in space in the centre of the household is testament to the importance of the wheel in cottage life. The flax wheel was operated with a treadle, or a pedal, which allowed the spinner to keep both hands free but was just as much a sensory experience, with the slightly rough wool running through the fingers of the spinner as the wheel turned. Once the wool has been spun, the spinner can rest. It was never advised to spin after midnight as this invited a visit from the fairies. Likewise, the cord should be removed from the wheel for the night so the fairies could not spin while you slept, though on a practical level this would also likely serve to prolong the life of the cord.
The spinning wheel is an iconic image of Ireland’s history, emblematic of a time of pre-industrial and sustenance living. It is, unlike many traditional crafts, a woman’s activity and is distinctive for this alone. Spinning was already becoming a craft associated with an Ireland of old by the time of the Schools’ Collection in the 1930s and while spinning continues to this day, its role as the necessary heart of cottage life has long since passed. But we should remember the other life of the spinning wheel, not just a static emblem of the past but as a dynamic and sensory object of sound and smell, texture and colour, of song, and of stories that echoed through the villages and the folklore of Ireland.
This post was written and researched by Clár Ní Dhuinn, Cúntóir Leabharlainne, Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann | Claire Dunne, Library Assistant, National Folklore Collection.
The Guild of Weavers, Spinners, and Dyers founded by Lillias Mitchel in 1975 is still active today and runs workshops and regular zoom sessions.
Hands: 37 fascinating films on Irish traditional crafts, a show produced and filmed by David Shaw-Smith and Sally Shaw-Smith for RTÉ in the 1970s and 1980s features episodes on both traditional spinning and spinning wheel making. It is available online and also on DVD via the James Joyce Library
Doohan, Claire (2018). I See Your True Colours…, UCD Cultural Heritage Blog.
Mahon, B. & O’Connel, M. (1983). Irish Dress. Dublin: Folens.
Mitchell, L. (1948) ‘Handspinning and Weaving in Ireland’ in Irish Geography: Journal of the Geographical Society of Ireland, Vol.1 No.5
Mitchell, L. (1972) The Wonderful Work of the Weaver. Dublin: [John Augustine].
Mitchell, L. (1978) Irish Spinning, Dyeing and Weaving. Dundalk: Dundalgan Press.
Shaw-Smith, D.(1984) Ireland’s Traditional Crafts. London: Thames and Hudson.