Ireland brings to mind images of rolling green hills with grazing sheep dotting the landscape. Those images aren't wrong. The rolling green hills and sheep make their way all over the country and even right up to the shore in some areas. A drive or a hike in the countryside might include a traffic jam, not of cars, but of sheep on your path.
Stores catering to tourists across the country sell Irish woolens - cable-knit sweaters, scarves, caps, and blankets. You can buy yarn alongside these sweaters in "craft shops" in most Irish towns. Combine the sheep everywhere with the tradition of Aran cable-knit sweaters and it's easy to imagine those sheep provide fleece that is spun into yarn, which in turn become those beautiful sweaters. Well, yes and no. I was surprised to learn that most Irish wool doesn't stay in Ireland and there are no commercial wool processors in the country to clean the wool before spinning to allow for the wool collected from the Irish sheep to stay in the country from sheep to needle.
We talk about this and more on episode 76 of the VeryPink Knits podcast with Diarmuid Commins of S Twist Wool. Besides listening to his lovely Irish accent, I hope you enjoy the episode as he describes what happens to Irish wool and what he is doing to change it. We visited while I as in Ireland this November at This is Knit, a beautiful yarn store in the heart of Dublin. (More about them next week!)
I became aware of Diarmuid's work when I was in Ireland in the spring and picked up some of his yarn at O'Maille's (episode 40). Anne, the store owner, told me how he was hand-spinning the yarn, but it wasn't until I got home and I researched more about his yarn that I understood that he was trying to keep the Irish wool in Ireland from sheep to skein. He has since given up on spinning it himself due to repetitive movement injuries and now focuses on processing and dyeing.
Processing wool is tricky because of the environmental costs. It requires a lot of water and after we recorded, Diarmuid pointed out just the lanolin from the sheep themselves is not something you want in the water, as well as any pesticides in the grass where the sheep have grazed and insecticides the sheep are treated with to keep lice and other bugs off the animals. Yikes! I learned from my visit to Bartlett yarns (episode 64) that there are similar challenges in keeping wool "local" in the US because they have to send the Maine-grown wool off to another state for cleaning due to environmental regulations.
Diarmuid also mentioned he sees clothing going the way of food, in that we are all becoming more aware of where our food comes from, so it's natural to be aware of where our clothes are made. In the US, there is a big drive to promote "Made in USA" clothing and other manufactured items, but with a smaller country like Ireland, it is a harder task to take-on. In the fiber and fashion world, I believe we will continue to see even more awareness of where our clothes (and yarn) are made, the environmental impact, and efforts to reduce consumption in general. I promise many more podcast interviews on this topic in the coming months.
After the recording stopped, Diarmuid said his dream is to open his own mill and keep the wool in Ireland. I hope he gets that dream, but I do have to say that I have enjoyed knitting with his hand-spun wool. It's hardy and irregular. The natural colors are subtle and unique. While I'm knitting I often find a piece of grass that I pluck out or leave in to knit around. Some knitters might find this frustrating, but it reminds me of the fact that someone made this yarn by hand and it came from a real sheep who grazed on a bright green grassy meadow. It feels like little bits of Ireland are with me in Texas.
After listening, are you curious about what Diarmuid looks like? Imagine if instead of running away to California, Don Draper ran off to Ireland and worked with wool all day. No kidding. He might be Jon Hamm's long lost Irish cousin. And, if you're curious how to pronounce his name, it's "dear-mud," but as he said to me it's "functionally useless outside Ireland."
If there is a word like Anglophile for people who love Ireland, I might be that. I hope you get to visit someday.
Below are photos from fermenting wool he described in the interview, Diarmuid giving shearing a try, and more of his wool. (Click on the photos for a slideshow.)