Relearning Skills from our Heritage

Photo:Our Family Spinning Wheel

Our Family Spinning Wheel

Mary O'Malley

Photo:Shearing Black Faced sheep

Shearing Black Faced sheep

Mary O'Malley

Photo:Spreading out the fleece and taking out the dirt

Spreading out the fleece and taking out the dirt

Mary O'Malley

Photo:Soaking the fleece in cold water

Soaking the fleece in cold water

Mary O'Malley

Photo:Letting the fleece dry in wicker basket

Letting the fleece dry in wicker basket

Mary O'Malley

Photo:The Cards and soft roll of wool

The Cards and soft roll of wool

Mary O'Malley

Photo:Mary B. Davitt giving a wool spinning demonstration using her grandmother's big wheel

Mary B. Davitt giving a wool spinning demonstration using her grandmother's big wheel

Mary O'Malley

Photo:Our Family Lockdown Blanket re-learnt from our heritage

Our Family Lockdown Blanket re-learnt from our heritage

Mary O'Malley

National Heritage Week 2020- Our Family Spinning Wheel

By Mary Omalley

While many stories have been recorded about my Great Grandmother’s spinning wheel by other people, we realised we have not written about it from the family perspective. Here we try to give some more insight into our family heritage.

The big wooden spinning wheel has been sitting in my mother’s sitting room since her own mother went to her Eternal reward. Before that it was always a respected and sacred ornament in my Grandmothers sitting room. As children when we played indoors, we were always conscious of the Wheel and not to crash in to it as we chased each other round the room. Not grasping the significance of such a precious possession.

My Great Grandmother, Mary Needham (nee Keane), most likely inherited the Spinning Wheel from her mother in law when she married Michael Needham of Cross. As they reared a family in the early 1900s, the Congested District Board was offering portions of land for sale in many parts, to try and re populate the area which had been decimated by the Famine and subsequent evictions. Availing of this opportunity the family moved to a larger farm holding in Thallabawn and set about working the land. The spinning wheel of course moved too and Marys’ daughter Bridget, (better known as Beccie) learnt the skill of spinning from her mother. After some time working away in Dublin Beccie returned home to look after her parents and work the farm.

Getting married in 1943 to Tommy Morrison they both embraced the country living. Rearing a family of eight and taking care of her parents and her brother, Beccie still had to make time for spinning wool and knitting clothes for all the family. Her mother died circa 1957 aged ninety-nine years. Beccie taught her own daughters to spin and knit and sew, mending clothes was just part of the norm. The boys were taught how to sew and mend things, including the spinning wheel. Beccie’s brother James repaired the spokes on the spinning wheel and is said to have been gifted with his hands, including making “currachs”, which were narrow wooden boats usually used by fishermen.  

The spinning was a skilled job and while many mastered the art of spinning only few perfected it. Beccie through her dedication and passion not only perfected the art but demonstrated and showcased her skill to many. She was recorded by David Shaw-Smith for the RTE program “HANDS” in the late 1970s. Local teenagers in Killeen interviewed her for their Macra na Tuaithe project in 1976. No stranger to hard work she often demonstrated her spinning in various places as part of heritage days and festivals. Her daughter Mary B. (my Mother) showed a keen interest in learning the tradition and accompanied Beccie to many trade fairs around the country. I have a vivid memory of rising early one summer’s morning, when I was about seven or eight years old, going with both my mother and Grandmother, to Peacocks in Maamcross, Co Galway to demonstrate wool spinning in the thatched cottage. The volume of tourists that came through that cottage door taking our photos and asking questions, was something I had never experienced before. In her usual calm, gentle and patient way my grandmother explained over and over again the process. My mother using the “Cards” sat next to her showing the method of getting the wool ready for spinning. I had learnt the basic knitting stitch and was nervous as I was centre of attention as being a third generation present on that day, to learn the tradition. Always prepared, my mother and Grandmother had brought many handmade items of clothing, bed clothes, gift ideas and traditional Irish lace for sale. It was a good trade day! And I had my first soft Ice-cream or “99” as they were known.

The Spinning process itself was slow and back breaking. Once the wool had been shorn from the sheep in late summer, the work really began. The fleece was first laid out flat on the ground, really dirty or un-useable bits were cut off. The entire fleece was then washed in cold water to remove any heavy soiling and in using cold water you did not wash out the important oils that make wool so durable. The fleece was then left on a large stone wall or in a wicker basket to drip dry. Once dry this was then teased out by hand so any bits of moss or dust could be picked out. Farmers locally kept mountain black head sheep who had a white fleece, but to get black fleece was considered lucky and the wool wouldn’t need to be dyed. Nowadays there are many different breeds of sheep, some with shorter and softer wool.

Next the clean wool needed to be “carded”. My Grandmother would add a little parafin oil to the wool at this stage to ease the working of the cards. The “cards” were wooden framed, about 8 inches by 4 inches, with a leather base which had steel teeth, and usually a wooden handle. By using the cards teeth, you would tease the wool in the one direction so all the fibres were going the one way. This would make the wool finer and small soft rolls would be placed in a basket ready for spinning. Only the adults were permitted to do this as it was thought that the steel teeth would accidently cut a child’s hand. Or perhaps as it was such an important tool it was to ensure that the teeth wouldn’t get broken.

Once the soft rolls were ready for spinning you needed to ensure that the spindle was correctly attached to the stock, which was the tall wooden frame. The spindle itself was wooden and held in place on the stock by two thin “sugans”, which were handmade straw ropes. The band, which connected the big wheel to the spindle was usually made from prespun wool in which many strands were spun together to make them stronger than your usual woollen thread. The band was almost akin to a rope but much thinner. The band stretched around the big wheel and around the spindle. You needed correct tension on the band for the wheel to operate correctly as if too loose or too tight the wheel would not function properly. Then standing by the big wheel you would gently attach a soft roll from the basket to the spindle. Using your right hand to turn the big wheel you needed your left hand to feed the soft wool to the spindle, all the while maintaining the same thickness of the wool being spun by gently drawing the wool back towards you. When the spindle was full of spun wool, (thread) the spindle needed to be removed and a fresh empty one attached. The children could now take the full spindle and wind the thread in to hanks or a ball of wool depending on what the finished product was used for. If wound in to a ball it could be used for knitting as it was, or sent to the weaver to make blankets. Hanks were usually kept for dying at a later stage.

My mother recalls gathering lichen from the rocks by the river to be used as a dye for the wool. They also used onion peels, seaweed, blackberries, heather and other flowers and berries. The ingredients for dying were placed into a pot with water and brought to the boil. Once boiling had been reached the pot was taken off the heat, strained and then the hanks could be placed into the pot to soak the dye. The hanks would then need to be dried completely before using.    

The large wheel on my Grandmothers spinning wheel is the original from her grandmother’s time. The band would need to be replaced with use and age. The big spinning wheel was common in Mayo and Galway with the smaller foot pedal spinning wheel more common in Donegal and Kerry. My grand uncle James repaired the spokes on the wheel sometime in the late 1960s but apart from that the big spinning wheel is still the original wheel, spindle, and stock, which we estimate to be circa 180-200 years old.

Watching the women in my family work so hard and make do with so little I grew up with a better understanding and appreciation for our traditions. Understanding that not everyone was as privileged as myself to have a skill passed down, made me determined to educate myself and my own daughters. Coronavirus has brought us together through our past, we enjoyed many stories and learnt so many traditional skills from my mother in the few months of spring 2020. During lockdown in March and April 2020, everyone in our immediate family made a knitted square, under the direction of my mother. Then my mother sewed these squares together and we now have a new family heirloom to treasure. The positives of 2020 will have a lasting impact on our local heritage, not just the revisiting of past traditions but the recording and relearning of these important skills. 

Click on this link to see my Grandmother Beccie Morrison on the RTE Documentary by David and Sally Shaw Smith in late 1970s:

This page was added by Mary OMalley on 08/08/2020.