Irish Cottage Industry, Mayo Abbey in Co. Mayo


Everything was home produced in our grandparents time, even as late as the 1950s. The women worked hard during the long winter nights knitting and sewing. The sheep was shorn the previous summer and the fleece was folded and tied in a certain way. The Suffolk Down a popular English production was strictly a low-land breed of sheep, with short thick wool and very little waste. This wool was also suitable for fine tweed.

Grandmother would wash the fleece in a nearby stream. It was swished in the water to avoid tangling or felting. Then it was dyed as required. This was done on a big pot on an open fire.

Colour was produced from moss, leaves, berries and flowers. Moss produced a brown colour, green was considered unlucky. Next came the carding of the wool. First it had to be oiled, usually with goose grease, to make it easier. By carding the wool was teased and made into small coils called rolag, ready for spinning.

Prior to the introduction of the Old Age Pension, poor old women used to card wool for a wage and their hands and clothes would be smelly and greasy. The wool spinning wheel was much bigger than the linen wheel, used for spinning flax.

To my childhood memory you had to standing up and stepping to-and-fro, to use the woollen wheel. Twisting and winding-on remained two separate operations until the introduction of the U-flier and the treadle meant even more improvement because the spinner's hands were free to work the wool at all times.

By re-spinning grandmother produced two-ply yarn for heavier garments. Next came the knitting of socks and sweaters of various sizes and designs. So at last young Tom and Mary-Kate had a new sweater for Sunday mass!

Daughters in the family yet not old enough to emigrate to America helped with all the work. Or perhaps a returned daughter preparing for marriage would be making things for her future home.

A good blanket and flannel quilt and patchwork quilt were a luxury and part of her dowry. Aran patterns were popular and still are.


Unlike wool, flax was grown and harvested in the field and scutched of its seed. It was then buried in the bog to make it pliable.

It was then combed, for this a hackle was used, and then it was known as a tow. Next came the spinning on the smaller wheel. Few houses owned the two wheels. It was then taken to the weaver.

Homespun tablecloths and sheets were produced. When a person died and was waked in the house a number of sheets were required and kept for such occasions if at all affordable.


A popular work of art, for embroidering fine linen and with linen thread.

A puter spoon was used to mark it out and little leaf-shaped holes were cut out and button-hole stitching done around them.

It decorated petticoats, christening dresses and a range of items. Grandmother always had her cape, bonnet, petticoat and skirt for mass. Her lightweight boots were made locally by Shoemaker Carney.


Every girl in the past learned to crochet. It is done with one needle or hook. Woollen hats and caps are still available.

Its use in the past was again for pillow slips, guest towels, collars for girls and for altar clothes for which the keys was a popular design.

No home was without an altar and it was decorated with crepe-paper flowers, sometimes bought from travellers. The Rosary was prayed each night.

Patch-work quilts

They were always popular and beautifully designed as were flannel quilts with red one side and purple on the other and rows of hand stitching, corner-wise or zig-zag fashion.

Sometimes the quilt was held on a timber frame or just stretched on the floor.

Often in a close-knit village women came together and helped each other while the men-folk played cards elsewhere.

There was nothing to beat our Foxford and Donegal tweeds it is rumoured that even Ronnie and Nancy Regan slept under a Foxford blanket while in Ashford Castle!

By Margaret Joyce from her own childhood memories.

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