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
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.