In this article, Bernie Leahy, B&T Drystock Adviser, Teagasc, Galway/Clare, outlines how Irish wool is at a crossroads.
At Kerry Woollen Mills, Beaufort, Killarney, Weaver, Andrew Eadie’s family has carried on weaving since 1904.
Yvonne Eadie explained that there are no large scale wool washing facilities in Ireland.
Strict licencing laws make it difficult to secure permits. She would welcome more research by Teagasc into by-products of wool.
In the past, wool was bought locally. Retired wool merchant, Pat Lyons of Newtowndaly, Loughrea, was a regular buyer of wool supplying the mills.
Nowadays, wool is prewashed in the UK and brought back for production and weaving.
The mill’s product range from ornate priests vestments to luxurious blankets and exotic capes, hats and scarves for the tourist market.
Galway Wool Co-op
The Rare Ould Galway Ewe – Blaitnaid Gallagher of the newly formed Galway Wool Co-op has secured a niche market with Kilcar-based Donegal Yarns.
This high-quality native wool is of a medium to fine texture. Galway breeds are also listed as an Irish rare breed.
Studio Donegal – this company which is also Kilcar-based – won the Irish Showcase Crafts Exhibition in 2020 and 2021.
Tristan and Anne Donaghy, directors of the company, produce a range of designer tweed clothing.
They are proud to carry on the forty years of creative weaving started by parents Kevin and Wendy.
Joyce Country Wool – Carina and Mark Coyne live on the shores of Lake Nafouey, Finney, Co. Galway.
Carina says, “All the wool I spin is from sheep here in Joyce Country.”
“I also dye my wool using only natural dye like Lichens, berries, plants, vegetables, and anything that grows in abundance here. All wool is washed on the farm.”
She also looks forward to opening up her business to ‘staycation tourists’ who can ramble off the Wild Atlantic trail for a different experience.
Diverse uses of wool
Irish wools have always been renowned for their unique properties, allowing them to be used in carpet and construction materials alike.
Laurence Pierce (Wool Merchants) Ltd has been trading for over 150 years. Vincent and David Pierce at Rathdrum, Co. Wicklow have expanded the family business in recent years.
They invested in Ilyich Wool Washers Ltd in Belarus and wool intake points in Croatia and Greece.
“When sheep numbers started to decline in this country, we had to come up with new ideas to stay in business.”
“About 90% of our greasy wool is exported to China, with the remaining 10% going to UK carpet mills,” Vincent explained hence the move abroad to process the wool.
David Pierce set up Sheep Wool Insulation fifteen years ago to make use of black wool insulation for houses. The wool is an environmentally friendly alternative to standard insulation.
Sheep were first domesticated in Central Asia about 10,000 years ago to provide a ready source of meat, milk, and hides for clothing.
As humans worked with the hair from the sheep hides, they found that twisting thin strands of wool fibre together formed a continuous length of yarn.
Irish farmers, however, breed sheep mainly for meat while wool is a secondary product.
The naturally, courser Irish wool of 26mm thickness compared to finer Australian and New Zealand Merino of 18mm thickness has seen an influx of non-native finer wools into our wool weaving industries.
Imported Mohair wool from the Angora goat and Cashmere from the Kashmir goat are also found in finer wool cloths.
Slowdown in the Chinese economy, the world’s biggest wool importer, followed by Russia, coupled with Covid stagnation of world trade and Brexit disruption have “floored“ the markets, causing a lot of disillusion amongst Irish farmers.
In the eighties, farmers fetched quotes of up to 70 pence per lb. Nowadays, prices have stabilised to 10c per kg. Average prices for 2020/2021 are forecasted to remain at 20c per kg.
More supports for wool production are needed:
Pippa Hackett, Minister of State for Agriculture, has announced a €100,000 feasibility study to develop Ireland’s struggling wool industry.
“Wool is a sustainable, organic, renewable natural material which can be used in a wide range of products such as textiles, fertilisers, insulation and packaging”.”
Up north, Edwin Poots announced a compensation scheme for farmers worth £1.26 million for the poor price returns of wool. Should our Minister for Agriculture be following his example?
Why supply clean fleeces?
Under DAFM Cross Compliance, Animal Welfare & Sheep Welfare Schemes, sheep farmers are obliged to shear and dag their sheep and treat sheep for external parasites, e.g. Blowfly.
Dagging and shearing in dry conditions work hand in hand with cleaner fleeces. Winter dipping helps control sheep scab.
This notifiable disease, if neglected, reduces an animal’s body condition and, of course, wool quality for May to June shearing. High time for dipping certs to be introduced again, perhaps!