Clothing the Family
Read about how Irish families bought and made their clothing, and about the wool and linen that traditional clothes were made from.
Spinning wheel beside a hearth and a dresser
While there was no national traditional Irish costume, people in the countryside typically wore clothes made of hard-wearing materials. Most people owned separate outfits for working and for ‘Sunday best’, the latter eventually relegated to everyday wear. New clothes, whether made or bought, were a rarity.
The man of the house purchased most of his clothes from the local tailor. His wife generally made his shirts and undergarments at home, while headgear was shop-bought. The woman of the house would have made most of her own clothes, and those of her children. Cloaks were bought from a mantlemaker and some women purchased shawls in large towns.
Fleece and flax
The two most important raw materials for making clothing were fleece and flax. It was the women who separated the shorn fleeces into different grades of wool, selecting the wool to be spun and woven.
Sheep’s wool is usually white or cream-coloured (báinín in Irish), although some breeds produce black wool. There was a choice of using undyed wool in its original colour, or dyeing the wool with natural or purchased dyes. After the dyeing the wool was carded to prepare the wool fibres for spinning.
Originally, women spun the wool using nothing more elaborate than a spindle with a weight attached. Later, spinning wheels became more widespread and these simple devices enabled the spinner to twist the fibres into a single continuous thread more efficiently.
Fibres from the flax plant were spun into linen yarn using a spinning wheel known as a low Irish wheel or a Dutch wheel, which originated in Holland. Although flax was grown and spun in all parts of Ireland, the production of linen only became an important industry in the northern counties.
Once the wool or flax was spun into yarn, it was wound into hanks and brought to the local weaver who operated a loom in his house to weave the yarn into woollen or linen cloth.
An additional treatment called napping involved roughening the surface of the cloth (such as flannel) in order to produce a tufted effect which was weather resistant.
Needlework and Embroidery
Women were often engaged in needlework by the light of the fire. Clothes were sewn and knitted and those skilled enough decorated them with lacework and embroidery. This decorative work was also used for church linen, while quilting and patchwork were used for making bedclothes.