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Knitters go mad for Galway sheep – producing Ireland’s only indigenous wool

A knitting club using only wool from the endangered Galway Sheep breed has sold out hours after it launched – with knitters from around the globe jumping at a unique chance to create a blanket with Ireland’s only indigenous sheep wool.

In all her years of organising knitting clubs, never has one sold out so quickly, reveals Carol Feller, the founder of Stolen Stitches, a large knitting company based in Co Cork.

Some 200 knitters from Ireland and abroad paid over €85 to sign up to the Galway Blanket Club. She is hoping to open it up to another 100 once enough of the ‘Gaillimh’ wool yarn can be secured.

Each club offers luxury yarn, exclusively designed knitting patterns, step-by-step workshops, collaborations with local designers as well as the chance to ask questions about what is being knitted at each stage.

Up to now, the clubs used only imported wool from mainly merino sheep in South America or Australia.

When launching the first ‘Galway Blanket Club’, the company liaised with the Galway Wool Co-Op, which has championed the preservation of the Galway Sheep by offering farmers here more money for wool from this breed.

The farmer-owned and run co-operative gathered 5,400 kg of purebred wool at Athenry Mart in 2021 which it had delivered to Donegal Yarns to be spun. The company has bought two years’ clip from the co-op.

Carol says Galway wool is resilient, rustic and strong, extending the life of any garment or item produced from it.

“It’s not super soft, like merino or cashmere, so it’s more durable, it retains its shape very well. It’s not quite as soft in the hands so it washes well with lanolin. It gives a very good stitch definition, it becomes almost three-dimensional. The stiches just jump off the surface.”

The Galway Wool Co-op have now established real traceability for the purebred wool, instead of getting mixed in with wool from other breeds.

“I think there’s such a huge amount of support out there for Irish farmers and for a breed-specific rare wool. We went for a visit to a farm and made a video of the sheep so there’s a clear line of traceability.”

The ‘Galway’ is officially listed as a “breed in danger of extinction” and qualifies for extra grants under Reps IV.

It is formally recognised by the Irish State as the only remaining indigenous sheep breed.

In 1993 there were just ten flocks and 118 ewes of Galway Sheep recorded in the national flock book owing to the popularity of Suffolk-cross lambs from the mid-70s.

The Galway Sheep Breeders’ Society was formed in Athenry in 1923, creating a name change for the common long-woolled type of sheep common in the central plain of Ireland up to the mid 18OOs known as ‘the white sheep’ or ‘the Roscommon’.

The first flock book of ‘Galways’ published in 1924 stated that over 6,000 ewes and 200 rams were examined by an inspection committee and 600 ewes and 20 rams were admitted to the flock book. A total of 23 flocks were established by this process.

But between 1975 to 1992 the percentage of Galway ewes, relative to all lowland ewes, declined from 61% to 8%.

Blátnaid Gallagher, one of the founders of the Galway Wool Co-Op, estimates there are less than 3,000 of this docile native Irish breed still a part of Irish family farm life.

Stolen Stitches will likely run a second a club with ‘Gaillimh’ wool, but probably will focus on something other than blankets next time.

“Our clubs usually sell out in a few weeks. This one sold out in ten hours. I still can’t believe it. Knitters also liked that we were giving some of the proceeds to charity.”

From the sale of every club membership, €5 will be donated to the youth mental health charity, Jigsaw. Donegal Yarns will donate €1 to the charity from every kilo of wool sold.

“Preserving the heritage of this Irish sheep breed is of great importance to Stolen Stitches. We want to share this wool with the wider world through our global dedicated knitting community, which will allow the breed to develop and grow so that it can continue to improve.”

For more, read this week’s Connacht Tribune:

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