We’ve been wanting to write a piece about the Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers for some time now, but as neither of us are members, felt we might not be the best people to capture the true essence of the guild. So we’re handing over the reigns to our good friend, fibre fanatic and IGWSD Member, Helen, aka PrettyFunkyKnitter this time.
Handspun yarn seems to be everywhere I look at the moment and although I’m bound to notice this as it’s a passion of mine I don’t think I’m alone in this observation. The whole Slow Fashion movement seems to have a lot to do with it and there’s definitely a drive to know where our things come from, who’s behind them and to feel a part of the wider story of makers and making. There definitely seems to be an upsurge in the craft of spinning – a noticeable sign of this is that commercial yarn producers, and even fashion houses, are doing their best to emulate the look and texture of handspun yarns. In addition, a lot of previously neglected or long-forgotten spinning wheels are making their way out of storage and down from the attic (a terrible place to store them btw!) to be put to use again or restored where necessary. Spinning is cool again – yay! The more the merrier.
If you’ve followed me in any form on social media over the last few years it’s easy to see how the art of handspinning has taken over my life. I love everything about it. It speaks to my adoration of colour, texture, sustainability and my constant strive for a slower pace of life. In an increasingly fast-paced world spinning is a perfect craft as it gives you the time and space to contemplate, or even temporarily switch off the outside world completely, depending on your mood. The bonus is that at the end of it you get a product that is handmade, eco-friendly, useful and beautiful.
An example of my handspun Art yarn
How did I end up here? The short answer is a house move, curiosity, Culture Night and The Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.
Before I get into my own fall down the wonderfully colourful rabbit hole, I’ll give you a bit of the modern Guild’s backstory.
There is a long history of spinning, weaving and dyeing in Ireland. If you sit behind a wheel in public for even a short period of time you’ll be approached by many people of a certain generation who’ll give you accounts and memories of their grandmothers or mothers spinning by the fire in the evenings. They’ll also tell you in beautiful detail about the jumpers and other knitwear they wore created from the yarn these women spun. These may be memories that are slightly romanticised as a lot of the spinning that was done at the time was more out of necessity than love for the craft. In saying that, there is a look of pride on people’s faces when they tell these stories as they view these women as strong and hardworking and providers of warmth and a sorely needed extra income through their skilled work and craft. As time passed and industry progressed it became less economically viable to use time in this fashion as mills could produce yarns ever faster and cheaper, so the need for spinning wheels became redundant in most Irish homes. The skills involved in handspinning no longer needed to be passed down through the generations. In 1915, however, a lady was born in Dublin who changed the face of the crafts of weaving, spinning and dyeing for modern Ireland; her name was Lillias Mitchell.
Lillias was a prolific artist in her youth, mastering both painting and sculpture – some of her paintings are currently on display in the National Gallery’s ‘Invisible Women’ exhibition. It was during a three-year teaching role in Wales in her late twenties that Lillias found her passion for weaving. On her return to Ireland in the late 1940s, she set up the Golden Fleece Weaving School with her friend Morfudd Roberts. By 1951 Lillias had set up a Weaving Department in the National College of Art and Design with the backing of the Department of Education, using looms she had purchased while on an educational trip to Sweden. From this new centre, she taught weaving, spinning and dyeing to her students until she retired in her 60s.
In the 1970s, from her vantage point, Lillias could see a growth in interest for weaving and she felt that something was needed outside the realm of the classroom, so in 1975 she decided to set up a Guild in Ireland for those interested in weaving, spinning and dyeing. In 1980 a group of three students, Mary O’Rourke, Terry Dunne and Cathy MacAleavy, took a course in weaving, spinning and dyeing taught by Muriel Beckett in the Dun Laoghaire College of Art, after which they set up a society known as ‘The Weaver’s Group’. Within a year Lillias’ Guild and The Weaver’s Group merged and created what has since become the modern day Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.
One of Lillias’ beautiful wheels with markings from Olholm, 1890 was brought to the attention of the Guild this year by a lady who had inherited it. A precious and stunning piece of Guild history.
Today’s Guild is made up of a wonderfully diverse group of people of many ages, genders and countries of origin, spanning the length and breadth of the country. It’s a place where people can come together to learn, skillshare and chat about our love of our chosen crafts. A part of our aim as a Guild is to head out into the world to demonstrate and share our passion for what we do and our ambition to keep these traditions alive in the modern world. Each year we can be found at events such as the Knitting and Stitching Show, Culture Night, Dublin Makers Festival and we hold annual International Spinning in Public Day events around the country. You’ll also find us regularly popping up around the country getting involved and demonstrating at as many local events as possible. There are also less formal meet-ups around the country in Wexford, Kilkenny, Donegal and Dublin to name a few – more are listed on the website weavespindye.ie under ‘group meetings’ in the ‘News’ section. Contacting the Guild through the website is also a great way of finding a skilled teacher in your area if you’re interested in learning the arts of weaving, spinning and dyeing. The Guild members are such an interesting and interested group it’ll be hard not to get sucked into their world, as I did.
A few of us happy Guild members at the end of a long, successful day demonstrating at Dublin Makers festival, still smiling 🙂
As I’ve mentioned above it was Culture Night where they got me. Culture Night is a stroke of genius in my mind, one night in September where the entire country is brought alive by everything that makes this a wonderful place to live. You get to peek behind the curtains of the Artists, Crafters and Performers of Ireland on one magical night of wandering and discovery. The year I found the Guild I had just moved to Dublin and I knew I wanted to explore something yarn based. I’m an avid knitter so it was a no-brainer when I saw that the Guild was demonstrating in The Constant Knitter. I’m not the most confident person in the world when it comes to walking into groups of new people (I’m a bit of a fake-it-til-you-make-it kind of gal) but I knew if I was going to settle in my new home I would need to search out like-minded people a.k.a the wool obsessed. From the minute I climbed the Constant Knitters’ stairs I felt welcomed and at home. The super-friendly Laura of Ellie and Ada was there showing people how to spin on a wheel. I tried, I failed, my daughter tried and did slightly better, eeck! I quietly shuffled over to the table where I could see people with drop spindles in their hands – this might be more my pace and skill level I thought. The eternally patient Diane of The Dublin Knit Collective fame handed me a spindle, some wool and gave me all the instructions I needed to get myself going. I definitely let the drop spindle live up to its name a few times that night but by the time the evening was over I was totally hooked.
Little did I know that night would lead me to find my BFF (Best Fiberista Friend as we like to call ourselves!) Diane and a love for spinning that has lead me to centre my world around it by starting my own fibre business, Prettyfunkyfibre.com, where I prepare fibre for spinners and create handspun and hand-dyed yarns.
Preparing Prettyfunkyfibre Rolags for spinning.
I can truly say that the people I’ve met in and through the Guild are some of the most inspiring and encouraging people I’ve ever come across. If you ever felt that you wanted to try spinning, weaving or dyeing I say go for it, try it out, you never know, it might become your new love. It has enriched my life- I’ve travelled the country, learned so much and have found my place and passion in this world- what more can a woman ask for? My world is now one surrounded with wool, colour and friendships. Thank you, Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers and the late, great Lillias Mitchell for sharing her passion and creating something truly wonderful.