Atlantic Fleeces is the brainchild of two first cousins who have identified a valuable use for wool fleeces that are commonly wasted and discarded.
The Irish wool product enterprise is owned by Phil Mahoney, who farms sucklers, calves and horses, and Sharon Wells, who grew up on a farm and now resides in Co. Wicklow. She works as a fibre and textile artist, utilising wool fibre to create felted pictures among other items.
A mutual love of working with wool
They hail from Kells in County Kerry, where their grandparents and great-grandparents also farmed mountainside and bogland, which faces the Atlantic Ocean, and is in the family for two centuries.
“We established this business about two months ago when we both realised that we had a mutual love of working with wool.” they explained to Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming.
“We asked a lot of questions and watched a lot of videos. Then, like most farming and crafting people, had a go-to see what would happen.”
[Phil and her grandaughter]
Sharon [main image] asked her father to make a peg loom to try weaving fleeces, while Phil made her own, which made them both realise how much they enjoy seeing the transformation from raw wool fibre to a finished product.
“It’s a very long process. First, we skirt (remove the dags and dirty wool) and try to shake as much dust and vegetation out of it. Then, we use an ancient method of cleaning. We ferment the fleeces in a closed barrel of rainwater for at least a week.”
“After that, we rinse the fleeces a few times and then wash in hot water with a natural soap solution to remove the lanolin. We then dry the fleece which can take up to a week – depending on the weather.”
“Then, we make our rugs by setting up the peg loom and then weaving the fleece back and forwards through the pegs. As the pegs fill up, we push down the fleece over the strung jute rope,” they added.
Phil is specialising in natural rugs, while Sharon is dyeing fibres with wool and silk dyes for rugs but also to use as felting fibre for other crafters. “These rugs can be used for seat cushions, lap rugs, wall hangings, sitting on the beach etc. They are extremely warm.”
The cousins source “good-quality” Irish wool from around the country and are currently using mostly local Kerry fleeces and some from Achill Island, which were gifted to them by family and friends to help them kick-start their new business.
“We are paying farmers €10-15/fleece depending on whether they are previously washed. Farmers are o pleased that something is being done with the fleeces that they are just giving away.”
The cousins are also sourcing other wool-types, with a view to showcasing the diverse range of ovine breeds that can now be found on Irish soil.
“For the rugs, we do need to use a longer staple wool fibre, so Scotch Blackface does work very well for that.” added the entrepreneurs who are also experimenting with Suffolks, Jacobs, Valais, Blue Faced Leicesters, Zwartbles, and Romneys.
“We have acquired and purchased fleeces from about 10 different farmers in the last few months.”
They make peg loom woven rugs, are getting some spun into art yarn, and have given away some to friends and family to use in their gardens, while Sharon uses some in her felted pictured.
They are currently selling products through their Facebook page and will have a presence in The Eco Shop, in the Rediscovery Centre in Phibsboro shortly.
They will also be available to purchase in The Muddle, Sharon’s new arts and crafts and craft supplies shop, which will swing open its door in Bray shortly.
Sharon also sells her felted pictures and other felted items in The Design Loft in Powerscourt in Enniskerry, The BoatYard Gallery, in Greystones, Kerry Woollen Mills, Mill Shop in Beaufort and The Design Gallery in Dun Laoghaire and in Skelligs Soaps Shop in Cahersiveen.
“Our rugs retail for €40+, depending on size, and Sharon’s felted items can range from bags of wool fibre at €5 to large, felted pictures at €400.”
Looking ahead, the cousins hope to grow Atlantic Fleeces into a viable business, that could just be a game-changer for sheep farmers.
“Having spoken to farmers, the outlook for wool looks bleak and their sheds are full of unused wool fleeces.”
“Enterprises such as our own need support to use Irish wool for making unique and sustainable products, so that we can, in turn, increase the value of wool fibre and help farmers make a living selling it,” they concluded.