Ever since I started my business, one of my biggest regrets has been the lack of an Irish yarn in the range. As an island nation with one of the world’s most well-known and recognisable knitting traditions in Aran knitting (which itself takes its name from the group of islands where it originated, off the west coast of Ireland), Ireland is a country which really should be represented by a shop specialising in island yarns.
Historically, wool was an important part of Irish industry, and woollen mills were to be found all over the country. Irish woollen textiles were exported all over the world. However, during the 20th century, with the development of synthetic fibres, the woollen industry in Ireland began to shrink and now only 2 yarn spinning mills remain in Ireland. A further problem is that due to strict licensing rules, there is currently no facility in Ireland for washing fleece, so all Irish-produced fleeces have to be sent the United Kingdom to be washed – something that has become even more difficult following Britain’s departure from the European Union.
At the same time, due to these global trends, Irish sheep farmers, like many others around Europe, began to move their focus from wool to meat. With more demand for meat and so few possibilities for wool processing in Ireland, fleeces ceased to have any value. The cost of shearing a sheep is now 10 times the value of its wool, and it has become almost impossible to find a 100% Irish knitting yarn. Even those yarns that you may think of as Irish, such the famous Studio Donegal yarns, are spun from imported wool (primarily New Zealand merino).
It is for these reasons that Laine des Iles has never offered an Irish yarn. So when I heard that Ireland’s most famous remaining spinning mill, Donegal Yarns, had produced a 100% Irish yarn using wool supplied by the Galway Wool Co-operative, I decided to buy a quantity to try for myself.
Laine des Iles Galway Aran
Last year I discovered the Instagram feed of The Galway Wool Co-operative, formed in 2021 by a group of Irish farmers keen to restore the cultural integrity of native Irish wool. Galway wool is a rare heritage wool grown with care and pride from the only native Irish breed of sheep, the Galway. All of the farmers in the Co-operative are proud of their Irish heritage and know that healthy sheep are happy and productive animals. They work with care and compassion to shepherd their flocks in tandem with nature. All wool produced by the co-operative comes from pure bred Galway sheep with a registered pedigree.
In 2021, for the first time, wool collected by the co-operative was sent to Donegal Yarns to be trialled in various applications, both for furnishings and for knitting yarn. From the first trial batch they have produced a very limited quantity of Worsted/Aran weight yarn, and we are delighted and privileged to have been able to buy a small quantity. As well as the traditional white yarn, we have also had 8 colours dyed for us in the UK using only GOTS-certified dyes.
Although classified as a longwool sheep, the staples of the wool are not particularly long but they are firm and crisp with an indistinct fluffy crimp. The wool has a dry but springy feel in the hand and is wonderful for creating texture in a knit. It is not a soft wool and would not suit next-to-the-skin garments but is perfect for a rustic cardigan, slipover or gilet which embraces the original, authentic look and feel of an Aran sweater.
My decision to buy this wool was an experiment. I know that this wool will not be for everyone, and so I have made the decision to sell the wool at a break-even price. This means that I will make no profit on this yarn, but will just cover my costs. This is the first year of wool production for the Galway Wool Co-operative, and it will take time and selective breeding to improve the softness and handle of the finished yarn. However, I really wanted to support them in their initiative and have, for the first time, a truly 100% Irish wool in my shop. This is of course a limited edition yarn, and I really hope that you will want to support them too in preserving Ireland’s only native sheep breed.