Clare Island is a small island off the west coast of County Mayo, Ireland. It was once the home of pirate queen Grace O’Malley and has a raggedy, wild beauty.
Beth Moran has been living here for about twenty years, and running Ballytoughey Loom for fifteen. Every Summer she runs workshops in natural dyes, spinning and weaving. Depending on the time that you’re there she might bring you out foraging for lichens to use as dyes, but the week I was there we used onion skins. The range of colours you can get is extraordinary.
The first dye bath gives a rusty brown colour, then the second gives my favourite; a yellow the colour of gorse bushes. An aluminium mordant fixes the colour, the addition of iron produces a rich moss green.
While the dye pots were bubbling away we were spinning more wool. Although some spinners and weavers do, Beth doesn’t wash the wool before spinning. The lanolin in the wool makes it easier to handle.
She has two spinning wheels, one a traditional Irish one and the other from Scandinavia. Despite the Irish wheel’s fairytale look, I unpatriotically preferred the Scandinavian one. There wasn’t the same foot pedal ‘backwash’ and it was quieter.
Both require you to do the equivalent of patting your head and rubbing your belly simultaneously. You control the pace and direction of the wheel with your foot, and feed in the wool by hand. Initially it’s hard to get a rhythm going but as with so many handcrafts once you do it’s a peaceful, meditative pleasure.
Setting up the loom with silk though was neither meditative nor pleasant. It seemed to combine mental arithmetic with repeated needle threading, and having been at an Island session the night before I was ill-equipped for either. In fact it gave me a real appreciation for child labour and I vowed I’d never deprive a five year old of a job again.
Luckily there’s a beautiful cove nearby and swimming to look forward to at the end of the day.
Fiddly as silk is to work with, I’m just grateful I didn’t use linen. Once silk is on the loom weaving it is fine but linen threads feel like tiny blades, and need spritzing with water to prevent stretching and breakage. (Yet another reason why linen – and the weavers thereof – commands my respect)
By my last day in Ballytoughey Loom I had seven eighths of a silk scarf (and one-eighth fringing) which my husband has very loyally worn at least twice. For weeks afterwards I kept waking up in the morning with my fingers in my hair, having dreamt about the seaweed in the cove, or about skeins of silk slipping through my hands; having dreamt about going back to Clare Island.