Woollen Mills of Ireland: Cushendale Woollen Mills
In our series ‘Woollen Mills of Ireland’ we will profile Ireland’s surviving woollen mills. First up is Cushendale Woollen Mills, which is located in Graignamanagh in Co Kilkenny and is run by Philip Cushen.
The history of the wool industry in Ireland is a long and chequered one. A thriving industry in the 1700, wool’s fortunes began to change towards the 1780s and the sector experienced an almost complete collapse in the mid-1820s. According to UCC research: “by the late 1830s most of the mills that had once held out the promise of an Irish industrial revolution had closed or were operating at a much reduced level, while Ireland now depended on English and Scottish imports for the great bulk of its cotton and woollen cloth”.
This once thriving industry of thousands of woollen mills has been decimated and Cushendale Woollen Mills is one of just a handful of mills that survives in Ireland to this day. The mill has been in Philip Cushen’s family for hundreds of years; in fact, the Cushendale Mill can be traced through his family as far back as 1773.
The mill’s history goes back over 500 years further though. In 1204 William Marshall founded a Cistercian abbey on the banks of the Duiske river and Graignamanagh (village of the monks) was established. The monks built a woollen mill and for 300 years wool production at the mill flourished. After the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII in the mid-1500s the mill was left to rack and ruin; however, a group of Flemish weavers who arrived in 1600 rescued it and re-established operations there. It is from this rich tradition that Cushendale Woollen Mills, as we know it today, was born.
Over its time Cushendale Woollen Mills has gone through peaks and troughs. During World War I the mill was at full production and employed 17 people. At the time it specialised in making blankets, which were in constant demand. In 1916 Phillip’s father went to Scotland to study for a textile scholarship. Demand for woollen products was significant during the war, and this demand had a knock-on effect on the need for skilled workers to work in the textile industry. It was in Scotland that Phillip’s father first saw power looms in action and he went on to buy the mill’s first power loom in the 1920s. These revolutionary machines were powered by water, which was close at hand for Cushendale.
A traditionalist at heart, Philips still prefers mechanical machines over today’s computerised versions, and pride of place in Cushendale Mills is a machine called The Mule. The machine, which dates back to 1890 and was installed by Philip’s father in the 1920s, is still in use every day in the mill. It uses a combination of two spinning methods and is usually reserved for spinning fine, luxurious yarns like lambswool and cashmere.
As a young teenager Phillip worked in the mill every summer and has fond memories of spinning fleece at the machines. Following the untimely death of his father when Philip was just 19, he took over the day-to-day running of the business.
Cushendale is a vertical mill that does everything from cleaning the raw wool to carding, dyeing, spinning, weaving and creating all their various products. Its fleece mostly comes from the Galway Sheep, which is the only native breed of sheep in Ireland, and Philip sources it from Wexford. The Galway Sheep wool is blended with skin wool, which comes from the skin of lambs that have been slaughtered via a fellmonger. This skin wool is finer and adds a softness to the Galway Sheep wool. Separately, Philip buys in his mohair yarn – the boucle mohair year is difficult to spin – and dyes it on site.
Production at the mill includes blankets, throws, travel rugs and other fabrics used in homes and hotel interiors. Cushendale’s home furnishings are created in a range of fibres: mohair (brushed and bouclé), 100% Irish wool, lambswool and cotton Chenille. The mill also produces clothing, including scarves, hats, ruanas (capes) and pocket stoles, and has a wide range of knitting and crochet yarns and felting wools.
Following the recession in 2008 Philip saw an increase in demand for knitting yarn, a demand that hasn’t receded since. As a result, yarn is currently the mill’s best-selling product. This has prompted Philip and the team to perfect dyeing. Philip recalls a time when the only real colour consideration was whether your wool Bainin blanket had a pink stripe or a blue one; now the team are able to dye almost any colour.
The River Duiske is arguably one of Cushendale Mills’ best assets. The river comes through Brandon Hill, a granite outcrop that gives the water a pureness of quality and a softness that’s so important in the textile milling industry. It’s this pureness and lack of peat or lime in the water that helps with the dyeing process, in particular in the creation of vibrant depths of colour – for example, the red carpets in Aras an Uachtarain were dyed by Philip and the team at Cushendale. The mill currently dyes 14 base shades of fibre including natural. These base shades are then blended to produce any number of colours.
For Philip, colour inspiration comes from everyday life and the Kilkenny landscape. He says he soaks all of this inspiration in subconsciously and draws on it when he needs to. He designs everything, from the colours themselves to the names of the colours and the designs they weave.
Fifty years later Philip is still as passionate about the mill as he was as a young teenager. Philip is the sixth generation of the Cushen family to work at the mill and he enjoys knowing that he still uses the knowledge and skills that have been handed down through the generations.
It’s this history and love of tradition that stand out when visiting Cushendale Woollen Mills. It’s clear that Philip and the team are determined to preserve the past, while at the same time leaping into the future. While Philip’s grandfather sold his products to the local community, his father went further afield to customers in Dublin and Cork, Philip uses his website to sell his products globally, as well as all over Ireland. But family is at the heart of the business, and alongside Philip, his wife Mary deals with the making up, labelling, ordering and dispatching of all their products.
Family and tradition go hand in hand at Cushendale Woollen Mills and with passionate people like Philip around these traditions will likely live on for some time.
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