Here at Olann and we’re on a mission to explore Ireland’s traditional crafts and hopefully bring them back into the public consciousness. One such craft is crios weaving, a simple craft focused on creating long woven belts that were originally worn by fishermen on the Aran Islands.
The origin of crios belts goes back centuries; examples in the National Museum of Ireland date from the 1600. Traditional criosanna were woven using six different shades of brightly coloured wool. These colours varied greatly from weaver to weaver, and the dyes used to create their distinctive colours were regarded as closely guarded secrets that were passed down through the generations.
Traditionally the belts feature a natural white or bainin wool on the selvedge edge, and each end has three plaited braids. They are typically 3 metres in length (those for women and children were made slightly shorter) and were worn by wrapping the belt around the body; one end was left hanging while the other was tucked into the wrapped belt itself.
How are crios belts made?
According to David Shaw-Smith, one of the pioneers of Irish folk craft research, “crios were worn with a waistcoat or bástchóta, and home-spun tweed trousers.” The weaving was done without a loom or mechanical device. Instead, the warp thread was stretched between two chairs or stools, or more traditionally, between one hand and one foot, with the end tied to a shoe. This made crios weaving a very portable craft.
Nowadays, there are very few crios belt weavers continuing to practise this craft, and those who do still create these wonderful belts will likely use looms, like Liz Christy, a weaver based in Castleblaney, Co Monaghan.
“I started weaving crios belts after being contacted by Cleo’s in Dublin who wanted me to create criosanna for the shop. Their previous crios belt maker was master weaver John McAtasney of Lurgan who at that stage had retired from weaving. I de-constructed John’s crios belts and was able to understand the construction and the weaving method. Although traditionally crios belts were woven using feet and hands, I use a simple loom to create my criosanna,” says Liz.
Crios belts enjoy a resurgence
As with many traditional Irish crafts, there was a distinct lull in the practise of crios belt weaving during the early 20th century. However, thanks to the popularity of Irish folk groups during the 60s items like Aran sweaters and crios belts gained visibility and enjoyed cult status. They were worn wrapped around flared trousers and you could often see them used as guitar straps. This renewed popularity waned in the decades that followed but they are again re-appearing in craft shops which cater for tourists.
“There is definitely a sense of crios belts coming back into favour. I think people miss seeing them around. We’re seeing interesting uses for them too like Beth Moran’s guitar strap criosanna and more recently they are being used in traditional hand-fasting ceremonies,” explains Liz.
Hand-fasting ceremonies are an ancient Celtic tradition where a couple’s hands are bound together using a braided cord or ribbon to signify their engagement.
What does the future hold for crios belt weaving?
As master weavers like John McAtasney pass away, the knowledge of traditional methods and crafts are also in danger of decline.
It is only through passionate and enthusiastic crafters like Liz Christy and Beth Moran that these traditional crafts live on. Liz is keen to pass on her crios belt weaving process to crafters who come to her studio for work experience, and believes it’s an important part of keeping these beautiful crafts alive.
With a growing emphasis on handicrafts and handmade, perhaps we are returning to a time where exquisite craftsmanship is valued again. In that environment we are likely to see a resurgence in unique and traditional crafts like crios belt weaving. Let’s hope so.
Ireland’s Traditional Crafts: David Shaw-Smith
Six Ways to Weave a Crios (YouTube)