How They Prepared And Made Up Clothing Materials

The wool was taken from the sheep with a shears having two blades and two

handles, much the same as our present hedge-shears. After the shearing the

whole work up to the finished cloth was done by women, except fulling,

which was regarded as men's work. The wool, after shearing, was sorted

and scoured to remove the grease, and then carded into soft little rolls

ready for spinning. Both wool and flax were spun with the distaff and
spindle as in other countries; for the spinning-wheel was not invented

till the fifteenth or sixteenth century.

The thread was woven in a hand-loom, nearly always by women in their own

homes. Ladies of high rank practised weaving long ornamental scarfs as an

accomplishment, which they did by means of a long thin lath--something

like our crochet work--as the Greek ladies of old practised weaving

ornamental webs. The woollen cloth was fulled or thickened by men who

practised fulling as a distinct trade.

Our records show that linen was manufactured in Ireland from the earliest

historic times. It was a very common article of dress, and was worked up

and dyed in a great variety of forms and colours, and exported besides to

foreign nations. So that the manufacture for which Ulster is famous at the

present day is merely an energetic development of an industry whose

history is lost in the twilight of antiquity.

The flax, after pulling, was tied up in sheaves and dried, after which it

was put through various stages of preparation much like those of the

present day. After spinning, the thread was finally wound in balls ready

for weaving.

The beautiful illumination of the Book of Kells, the Book of Mac Durnan,

and numerous other old manuscripts, proves that the ancient Irish were

very skilful in colours: and the art of dyeing was well understood. The

dyestuffs were not imported: they were all produced at home, and were

considered of great importance.

The people understood how to produce various shades by the mixture of

different colours, and were acquainted with the use of mordants for fixing

the dyes. One of these mordants, alum, is a native product, and was

probably known in very early times. Dyeing was what we now call a cottage

industry, i.e., the work was always carried on in the house: as I saw it

carried on in the homes of Munster more than half a century ago.

The cloth was dyed by being boiled with the several dyestuffs. The

dyestuff for black was a sediment or deposit of an intense black found at

the bottom of pools in bogs.

A crimson or bright-red colour was imparted by a plant which required good

land, and was cultivated in beds like table-vegetables, requiring great

care. There were several stages of preparation; but the final dyestuff was

a sort of meal or coarse flour of a reddish colour.

The stuff for dyeing blue was obtained from the woad-plant (called in

Irish glasheen) after several stages of preparation, till it was made

into cakes fit for use. A beautiful purple was produced from a sort of

lichen growing on rocks, after careful preparation. A still more splendid

purple was obtained from a little shellfish or cockle. This method of

obtaining purple was practised also by the ancient Britons or Welsh; and

by the same process was produced the celebrated Tyrian purple in still

more distant ages.

For sewing, woollen thread was usually employed. Women sewed with a needle

furnished with an eye as at present. From an early time needles were made

of steel, but in primitive ages of bronze. In those days a steel or bronze

needle was difficult to make; so that needles were very expensive: the

price of an embroidering needle was an ounce of silver. The old Irish

dressmakers were accomplished workers. The sewing on ancient articles of

dress found from time to time is generally very neat and uniform: one

writer describes the sewing on a fur cape found in a bog as "wonderfully

beautiful and regular."

Embroidery was also practised as a separate art or trade by women. An

embroiderer kept for her work, among other materials, thread of various

colours, as well as silver thread, and a special needle. The design or

pattern to be embroidered was drawn and stamped beforehand, by a designer,

on a piece of leather, which the embroiderer placed lying before her and

imitated with her needle. This indicates the refinement and carefulness of

the old Irish embroiderers. The art of stamping designs on leather, for

other purposes as well as for embroidery, was carried to great perfection,

as we know from the beautiful specimens of book-covers preserved in our


Ladies of the highest rank practised needlework and embroidery as an

accomplishment and recreation. For this purpose they spun ornamental

thread, which, as well as needles, they constantly carried about in a

little ornamented hand-bag.

The art of tanning leather--generally with oak-bark--was well understood

in Ireland. By the process of tanning, the hide was thickened and

hardened, as at present. Tanned leather was used for various purposes, one

of the principal being as material for shoes; and we know that curraghs

or wicker-boats were often covered with leather. A jacket of hard, tough,

tanned leather was sometimes worn in battle as a protecting corselet.