I spend a lot of time working with wool; holding it, knitting it and thinking about it.
But you know what?
I’ve never got up close and personal with where it comes from!
This all changed at the end of January when we made a visit to Blatnaid Gallagher’s farm. She had her husband, Niall, made us feel so very welcome there. They greeted us with a generous brunch (cooked on their Aga) and spent the afternoon showing us around the farm and telling us all about their Galway sheep.
This is a small farm, one of many in the Galway wool Co-Op, where the quality of the wool and its Irish heritage is of great importance to them. Blatanid’s farm is organic, allowing the fields to go fallow in the winter to rest. There is a wonderful mix of animals here; geese, hens, dogs, cats, donkeys and, of course, sheep! Their flock is all Galway except for two pre-existing sheep that tag along with the big white Galway.
Aren’t they cute:
What the ‘Galway’ sheep looks like:
The Galway sheep is distinctive looking, with a white head and a very sizable coat. The photographs we took were at the very end of January. They will begin shearing them in March, so this is almost as big as the coat will get. Blatnaid pulled back the coat to show us its depth, softness, and that distinctive crimp. With all its natural lanolin still in the fleece, it was soft and luxurious.
The Galway sheep holds a special place in Ireland, being our last native sheep breed. It’s a beautiful animal, gentle and responsive to human cues. In fact, Blatnaid told us that this means there’s no need for sheep dogs with this breed! They are very responsive. I couldn’t believe how calm and domesticated they were. They stood calmly next to us while we filmed several long recordings and were just full of personality!
Galway Wool Co-Op
Blatnaid is one of the founding members of the Galway Wool Co-Op that was established in 2021 to preserve the integrity of the native Irish Galway Wool and help farmers to establish a consistent route to market for this breed. I’m delighted to see this co-op being formed as wool in Ireland has long been undervalued.
This has resulted in sheep being bred only for their meat, so the quality of the wool has been of no importance. This has created a vicious cycle. The wool is poor therefore it is not worth much, so farmers have no reason to breed for better quality wool as it’s not valued and so it continues.
In Ireland, we currently do not have any larger scale scouring facilities, so to the first step in the fleece processing journey is to the UK, where it is scoured before being shipped back to the mill. For the last two years, Donegal Yarns has been supporting the Galway Co-Op by purchasing the full clip. This then gets shipped out for hand knitters, weavers, and other homeware producers to create 100% Irish wool products.
The wool produced by the Galway sheep is a light cream colour, rustic in nature, with a strong handle. It would traditionally be used for cabled aran style sweaters due to its lighter colour. Otherwise know as ‘báinín’ sweaters, which is the Irish for ‘cream’. Historically, this wool would have a much gentler scouring process (as it would have been done in a domestic setting) with a lot more lanolin left on the wool. Newer scouring methods create a wool with less lanolin in it that feels cleaner (still with the woolly smell) but a little further from the more traditional wool.
Stolen Stitches Collaboration
Last summer, we began talking with Donegal Yarns about the idea of a collaboration. We were very excited about the possibility of being involved in a project that helped preserve a heritage Irish sheep breed. This would also share it with the wider world, which will allow the breed to develop and grow so that it can keep improving.
This is a more rustic yarn, and we felt it would be perfect for a homeware project. It works particularly well for cables, creating a fabric that is both light and warm. The three designers in our team, Carol, Laura and Eimear, have all drawn from their favourite cables to bring our cabled project to life.
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But for now, tell me, did you like getting to know more about Galway sheep?