Neither of us could attend the Woolpalooza Festival, but when we saw all of the lovely photos @prettyfunkyknitter was posting, we got in touch to ask if she’d be happy to give us the rundown on the weekend’s activities.
Having seen how much fun was had by all, we’re a little sad that we weren’t there ourselves.
When Genevieve from Airfield Estate invited the Irish Guild of Weavers, Spinners and Dyers to take part in the Woolapalooza Festival, we weren’t quite sure what to expect and did not know that we were going to be part of something that can only be described as truly special. Over the gloriously sunny May bank holiday weekend, I had the honour of volunteering at Woolapalooza as a guild member. What a marvellous weekend it turned out to be.
Woolapalooza is now in its third year and is held on the Sunday and Monday of the May bank holiday weekend each year. The event takes place on the beautiful 38-acre Airfield Estate in Dundrum, Co. Dublin, an urban working farm, gardens, event venue and centre of animal and food education. It was gifted to the people of Ireland by the remarkable Overend sisters. The aim at Airfield is to help people, who may not normally get the opportunity, to connect with the land and the food that they eat. Having grown up on a farm, I can tell you this aim is definitely achieved – I felt like I had reconnected with a deep rooted part of my younger self. I could not help but notice that this magic was not just having an effect on me as I was surrounded by lots of little faces filled with wonder and awe.
My welcoming committee Connell and Carroll
I arose nice and early on the Sunday to get myself organised and pack up the car with everything I needed to demonstrate and display. The short journey was made and soon I was being welcomed to the estate by the two resident donkeys, Connell and Carroll, who were basking in the morning sunshine. A few short steps and I was in the Hive Courtyard where the Guild had been given two beautiful light-filled spaces to demonstrate and display, the main Hive Room and The Dairy Kitchen across the courtyard. We all set about making the space appealing and welcoming to the coming visitors. Looms, spinning wheels, drum carders, and samples of our work were laid out. There was also an information table displaying pictures of various sheep breeds and samples to feel of all the various wool and fibres which can be spun into yarn, everything from white sheep breeds to more unusual fibres like nettle, camel and yak. Máire had her floor loom all set up to show people how she creates her beautiful woven pieces. Skeins in place, scarves draped, a quick coffee consumed and we were all set for the masses. Masses there were, according to the gate figures more than ten thousand people visited over the weekend. We were kept on our toes!
Samples of handspun Guild members’ yarn.
Máire’s beautiful floor loom, ready for action.
I was delighted in how much more than a passing interest children and adults alike had in what we were doing. The children were all rearing to get a chance to try out some weaving with Máire and Ailbhe, who had set up a friendship-bracelet weaving station on the couches. One of the children was heard saying it was “better than her iPad” – I call that a definite win! There was also a queue of little people forming to have a chance to treadle on Bernadine’s spinning wheel, while she drafted and explained all about how the process works. At this stage I put my wheel aside for a while and took out my trusty drop spindle. While I spun I was asked many questions, all the way from the basic ‘how does that work?’ to more complex questions about the nature of spinning, the history of the craft, the wool industry, the value placed on ‘women’s work’ past and present, how we use what we produce and many, many other interesting queries. There were also people who viewed us with a sense of nostalgia as we brought back memories of their grandmothers sitting at spinning wheels producing yarn that they would knit up for their families and/or garment sellers. These conversations are the reason I am always happy to demonstrate again and again.
Just before noon, I headed over to The Dairy Kitchen to ‘help’ Grace of Babbles Yarns set up for her acid dyeing demonstration. Was I essential? Not really! Grace was pretty much all set and ready to go. However, it gave me a chance to spend time with the wool that was supplied by the estate and get up close to the dyeing. With the dye pot ready, Grace welcomed everyone and informed them on the process she uses to produce solid colours on the fleece, how different fibres react to dye, how acid dyes work and are set. She also did a short introduction on colour theory, which is slightly different in dyes than it is in pigments. By the end we had a beautiful rainbow ready to be put outside to be dried in the midday sun.
On the way out of the Dairy I managed to get a chance to chat to one of the butchers who was setting up for his demonstration. He was there to show how each cut of meat is prepared. It was great to see from both wool and meat production how important sheep truly are. The butcher values the animal as highly as we do and understands the necessity for the animal to be treated well and for nothing to go to waste. The remainder of my day was spent happily demonstrating in the Hive.
Monday started off a little more gently for me as I wasn’t technically on the list of volunteers for that day. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop me returning to the Hive at random points in the day to pop on a wheel or answer passing questions- spinning really is that addictive. I had the time to experience more of the event overall on Monday, arriving just after noon with my family and entering via the main gate this time. We passed the fabulous Overend Kitchen Restaurant, which can be visited without having to go into the estate itself. Most of their produce is seasonal and comes from the estate farm-to-fork, which I think is fantastic. As I approached the main house I noticed there was a knitting circle on inside, so I couldn’t help myself but to have a peek. The house is impressive, with many interesting pieces on display – an interactive audio tour is available to guide you if you wish. I headed to the knitting room, where a lovely lady was showing a young girl how to knit while others watched and waited their turn. Around the room there were beautiful antique and vintage knitted pieces in glass cabinets with information on their origins. Afterwards, we detoured into the Stable courtyard cafe for a pick-me-up. There were lots of yummies on offer but I managed to restrain myself and just stick to coffee. I was delighted to see that every coffee cup and lid in Airfield is compostable, fitting in with their minimal-environmental-impact ethos.
Myself and Grace getting a quick snap with the lovely Ruth.
After a quick hello to the Guild, we headed for the farm through the estate’s produce garden, where the wonderfully enthusiastic staff member Ruth was showing visitors the best plants to use in the natural dyeing process. After a lovely chat we continued to the Green barn. Inside the door was the husband and wife team of Baavet. I have had the pleasure of chatting to them at other events and their passion for wool and what can be produced with it is infectious. I bought slippers from them at the Knitting and Stitching Show that barely left my feet all winter. In the barn there was also woolly crafts going on for the kids- I saw many a pompom sheep, complete with googly eyes!
From here we headed for the Barnyard, passing one of the many yarn-bombed animal statues throughout the estate. Before long I had dubbed the yard ‘Shed Sheerin’ (after a certain musician who happened to be in Ireland at the time). On the right hand side there was a line of sheds full of lambs, piglets and calves- super cute! On the left was the primary objective for my visit to Shed Sheerin – this is where the sheep shearing was taking place. Agri Aware farmer Godfrey Potterton and award-winning sheep shearer Rodney were all set up and ready for action. Rodney set about shearing while Godfrey explained the shearing process and the important properties that wool fibres have over man-made fibres such as polyester. I ran into Grace here and we had an epic natter with these knowledgeable farmers about all things woolly and our hopes for a future yarn industry in Ireland. By the end of the chat there was a bit of bartering going on- fleece in exchange for knitted hats! Myself and Grace blagged a Bluefaced Leicester fleece to share, while Sandra and Susan bagged a Romney fleece – us spinners are a charming bunch, we fleeced those farmers!
Our fabulous freshly shorn fleece and a snap of the sheep dogs in action.
Wheeling and dealing done, we started to stroll back toward the Hive, fleece in hand. We took the slightly longer route back which meant we passed the Fairy Tree field. I was stopped in my tracks by the sound of a shepherd’s whistle and three beautiful collies dashing by – I wasn’t going any further for a while! Though I couldn’t make out exactly what was being said over the tannoy, I did get an amazingly funny running commentary from the little brother and sister duo I was standing beside as we watched the ‘One Man and His Dog’ champion Denis Birchall at work. After a wonderful display, we continued on our path, pausing on the way to say hello to all the different animals we met, goats, chickens, pigs and a particularly friendly sheep who liked to get his head rubbed.
By the time I arrived back to The Dairy kitchen I had just missed Sandra of Meet The Wool’s natural dyeing demo but thankfully hadn’t missed the instantly charming Sandra. I got a chance to ‘oooh’ and ‘ahhh’ at the stunning array of colours she can achieve from the plants that surround us. The rich purples, reds and blues are striking. I have promised myself a trip to Clare to attend a course with her as she was a delight to chat to and a wealth of knowledge.
Sandra’s beautiful yarns naturally dyed with madder root and weld. Photo courtesy of Meet the Wool. Facebook
We headed back to the Hive for the final time to catch up with all the Guild members tirelessly working away. They are all fantastic, have a passion for what they do and their commitment to keep traditional fibre crafts alive is amazing. As we packed up our wares (and wears!) and readied ourselves for the journey home there was that sense of satisfaction that always accompanies a tired body and mind. The Guild had a very successful weekend.
I’ve written here about the activities I participated in, but there was plenty more besides – egg collecting, cow milking, beekeeping, a ceili and barn dance, to name but a few. A family could happily spend the two days there and never feel bored. We were surrounded by smiling faces, excited children and content adults the entire time. I will definitely be there next year and for many more years to come and I know the Guild would be delighted to be there too. Woolapalooza is fantastic and I encourage all of you to visit next year and to check out the estate’s website to see all the other wonderful things they have to offer throughout the year.
Written by Helen Gaughan, @prettyfunkyknitter
All photos are either my own or have been used with permission of their owner. Not to be used elsewhere without relevant permissions.