Irish Crafts: Ancient Hands Crafting Our Future
Ireland is known as the land of saints and scholars, but it’s also the land of craftspeople! Ireland has a long tradition of developing textile, leather, wood, and metal crafts. Knowing the history of these crafts will make you treasure them even more. Here is the brief history of some of our best-selling Irish crafts!
The Irish Sweater
The Irish sweater you know and love originated on the Aran Islands, off the western coast of Galway and Doolin. Off the mainland, the Aran Islands are the last point of land until you reach America; covered in stone, the stark landscape made life difficult for the traditional people there. Hand knitting sweaters was not only an important to staying warm, but was also part of community building for the hardworking people. The traditional patterns, which can still be found on sweaters today, often represented the concerns of the people. The cable stitch, for example, represented the fishing ropes and offered good luck at sea.
However, early knitters would not have had the time or resources to create the intricate Irish sweaters we see today. In 1890, knitting was encouraged in the Aran Islands by the Congested District Board of Ireland as a way to not only keep warm, but make money outside of their small island. Now, the Aran Islands are famous for the intricate sweaters that they designed and continue to hand-knit.
The Blackthorn Shillelagh
The term “Shillelagh” was adopted in the late nineteenth century to refer to all Irish walking sticks, and was named after the Shillelagh Forest in Co. Wicklow. Until then, walking sticks were known by many other names, including “bata” which means “fighting stick.”
Popularly used as weapons in fights against opposing clans, the shillelagh had to be carried around so the user could get used to how it felt in their hands, and could train themselves in the difficult art of using it as a weapon. Carrying it around also meant that the user was prepared for anything. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the walking stick was adopted by those in the British isle for walking, and the Irish soon adopted that style.
Created from the significant blackthorn tree, as well as from oak and other materials, the shillelagh draws the attention of skilled craftspeople to create its distinct look.
Pewter is an ancient material whose roots trace back over eight hundred years in Ireland! In the 12th century, pewter was an expensive material, so the finely crafted utensils and candlesticks were found only in the halls of the wealthy. It was designed by expert craftsman, who used fire and metal tools to design the pewterware. Later, pewterware found its way into taverns and cottages. When glass and pottery was introduced in the nineteenth century, passion for pewter started to die out.
When Paddy Collins founded Mullingar Pewter in 1974, the ancient craft had died out. Collins had just spent two years studying the craft in Germany, and was passionate to revive working with pewter in his homeland using Celtic inspired designs! Now, pewter is loved with beautiful designs by Mullingar Pewter being cherished all over the world!
Linen is a lightweight and durable cloth that is made from the blue-flowered flax plant, which has been mashed, spun, and softened to create the final product. Linen started to be produced in Ireland in the early Christian era, and it is rumored that St. Patrick himself was buried in an Irish linen. Until the 1700s, linen was produced in intimate settings, such as local shops or homes, in the Irish countryside. Using small loom and spinning wheels, producing linen would have been a task that took weeks and involved a whole family.
In the 1700s, larger looms and spinning wheels began the process of industrialization of linen. The intimate home process gave way to factory work, centered in Northern Ireland. In the early 1900s, over 75,000 people were employed in the linen industry in Ireland.
Irish linen is still an important industry in Ireland, and is still handmade in some places and made using high tech machinery guided by experienced weavers in others!