Marja Almqvist has a spinning wheel in the boot of her car. She carries it in pieces into her studio, a small cottage in Emmett Crescent in Goldenbridge.
Just inside the door, a mannequin wears an ankle-length linen dress. A blue, soon-to-be embroidered apron is draped over it. Both are recreations that she’s working on, from old Viking patterns.
The linen is unbleached and medium-grade. It would have been fairly luxurious in Viking Dublin, says Almqvist. “You’d be fairly well-off if you had something to wear that wasn’t scratching the skin off you.”
She plans to wear the dress when she delivers four workshops on the history of weaving in the Liberties, scheduled for later this month.
The workshops will blend weaving demos with history talks, and organisers hope to give students a go at spinning wool and using tabletop looms, too.
History of Weaving
Almqvist, who has a degree in textile design from NCAD and was a community development worker for 20 years, has combined these two strands of her life by founding a “community-based textile school”, called The Yarn School.
She has worked with local women in and around the Liberties on a couple of different projects in recent times. “I became more and more aware of the long tradition of textile work in this area,” she says.
Going back generations, women around the Liberties have worked in factories or workshops, or doing piecework at home, or making things for their families.
“So there’s an incredibly rich store of knowledge which is getting lost in the next generation,” Almqvist said.
Almqvist says the idea behind the classes is to try to revive those skills and to get people making again.
“I’m a strong believer in the healing power of making, and the empowering of making, being creative,” she says. “And the other point then is to try to capture some of the stories that people still have.”
She and Cathy Scuffil, historian in residence for Dublin City Council’s South Central Area, plan to take their students way back.
Scuffil has been researching the area’s connections to Viking weavers.
So far, she’s found that the Glooey – “a place name all locals know” – is derived from a Manx Gaelic word connected to weaving.
“That’s the one old clue we have in the area, and it fits perfectly,” she says. The Glooey is in the parish of Saint Nicholas of Myra in Dublin, a church that had connections to the Isle of Man.
“That’s the trading link going back to the Vikings … All the old Viking trading routes would have linked up, and the closest one was the Isle of Man,” says Scuffil.
But it was the French Huguenots, Scuffil says, who really got the weaving industry going when they arrived in the late 1600s. They’re the source of a lot of its place names as well.
“The man who invited them was the Duke of Ormond, so we have a street called Ormond Street, right beside Weavers Square … [and] Newmarket was built by the Earl of Meath for them to trade their cloth and raw materials,” she says.
“That’s just to give you a flavour of how embedded and how much of the community they were here.”
The weaving industry didn’t just involve cloth either, Scuffil says. There were the skilled carpenters to build the looms, and the bobbin makers.
The tools needed for weaving would have been made locally as well, she said. “Obviously, then, the sheep were up the road.”
Another thing needed for weaving was drying on an industrial scale.
“Imagine cloth bigger than the room we’re in – sails for sailing ships or canvas for marquees on a battle site … but you can’t dry cloth in Ireland,” Scuffil says. “So they set up a stove tenter house, which did exactly what it said on the tin.”
There were five industrial stoves at ground level, and beams at the top that large pieces of cloth could hang from, “to prevent the weavers from being put out of business by the weather”.
The building is still there, converted into the Sophia Housing apartment block on Cork Street.
By the 1911 Census, Scuffil says, there were 410 people in the area still involved in the weaving industry. But British import taxes on Irish poplin contributed to the industry’s decline.
Now there’s only one company left: Botany Weavers on Cork Street, opposite the Coombe hospital. They use dyes from Irish plants to create the colours in their wool.
“They’re there, and they’re expanding, so we took that as being a very good sign that another old industry in the area was being regenerated,” Scuffil says.
“It’s part of our heritage here, so it’d be lovely to bring it back in some way or another.”
At the back of Almqvist’s studio, a huge wooden loom sits in a corner. She says she’s looking for a home for it, someplace the public would be able to use it.
In the front room, Almqvist sits next to sacks of raw wool, “basically straight off the sheep”, that she bought from a farmer at the Roscommon Lamb Festival. A postcard of the Bayeux Tapestry hangs on the wall.
The first thing to do with raw wool, she says, is to wash it and pick out all the thorns and other debris. It leaves an oily lanolin residue on one’s fingers.
Almqvist picks up two flat wire brushes and combs bits of wool between them. That’s the second step.
Spinning is next. She gets out a wooden hand spindle weighted with a “spindle whorl” at the end, and attaches some wool to a hook at the bottom.
It spins as it hangs from the brushed wool she feeds into it. The end result is a spool of yarn.
This is how people made textiles for most of human history, Almqvist says. Newfangled spinning wheels were a modern invention that appeared in the mid-1600s.
For the 20,000 years before that, people did it this way.
The four workshops are organised by the council’s community development staff for the Liberties area, along with Almqvist and Scuffil.
They’re scheduled to be held on 21 May at 10am in the Timber Yard complex on Cork Street; 28 May at 10am in Myra Hall on Francis Street and at 7:30pm in the Timber Yard; and on 4 June at 7:30pm in Saint Andrew’s Community Centre in Rialto.
They’ve received funding through the City of Dublin Adult Education and Training Board.
“The Liberties Cultural Association were also very keen to bring the craft of weaving back to where it belongs, really,” says Helen Burke, community officer in the council’s South Central Area.
If there’s enough interest, there are plans for a 10-week course in the autumn. It would combine practical skills with outings to places like the National Museum of Ireland, and historical walking tours of the Liberties.
A lot of local people feel pushed out by some of the redevelopment going on in the area, says Almqvist.
“I think it’s really important at this stage to get some of the local stories out again,” she says. “To have a project that, in some visual, material form, captures the history and the pride that the local people have in the area and in their history and traditions.”
Her goal would be that the group create, together, a piece to commemorate 1,000 years of weaving in the Liberties. “I don’t know if we can achieve that in 10 weeks, but everything takes baby steps,” says Almqvist. “I think the interest is there.”