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An Island of Skills

August Craft Month is here! Learn about some of the heritage skills and crafts we'll be showcasing.

A man is using a carving tool on a piece of wood.
The legacy of Ireland’s heritage crafts and skills can be seen all around us, embodied in buildings, hedgerows, baskets, and blankets. The skills themselves are less tangible and need to be used and passed on to future generations in order to survive.
As we look towards future challenges, there is much we can learn from traditional skills to help us reconnect with ourselves, each other, and nature, in order to live more sustainable lives.

The island of Ireland has a rich culture of making. The Folk Museum Making Festival gives a small taste of some of the traditional crafts and building skills that have forged our craft heritage. The Festival aims to reawaken our connection with the island’s unique heritage skills and crafts. We hope that you will join us in celebrating our shared heritage, and who knows, maybe you will discover a new passion for making!  

Linen Making

Linen has been cultivated in Ireland for at least 2,000 years. Ulster has a particularly strong connection with the linen industry. It helped to shape Belfast, which, at the end of the 19th century, was the linen capital of the world. In the 18th century, linen was a flourishing cottage industry. To make linen, a number of skills are employed to take the raw material, flax, and turn it into fine cloth. The flax was grown and prepared for spinning. This involved removing the seeds and outer woody stem to reveal the fine fibres within (pulling and scutching), before it was combed (hackled) to straighten the fibres and leave it soft and pliable. Traditionally, the flax was spun on a spinning wheel before being woven on a handloom to make cloth. It could be plain-woven, or a Jacquard loom could be used to make damask cloth with intricate patterns. To finish, it would have been washed, bleached and beetled to make it smooth and glossy.

You can visit Ballydugan Weaver’s House within the museum to meet our linen weaver and to see how they would have lived in the early 1900s. 

A woman prepares thread in front of a loom.

Musical Instrument Making 

Ireland has a strong musical tradition, and there are equally strong cultural ties with a number of traditional musical instruments. Bodhráns, Lambeg drums, uilleann pipes, violins, and harps are all instruments with a strong cultural tradition on the island, and all involve their own intricacies and high levels of skill in making. Both the Lambeg drum and the bodhráns rely on an animal skin - often goatskin - stretched over wooden frames to make their distinctive sounds. The Lambeg drum has the additional challenge in that both sides of the drum must be tonally the same. Both the Lambeg drum and the bodhrán can feature intricate painted decoration, which is its own skill.

Wicker, Straw, and Rush Work

Traditional Ulster ways of life gave rise to a number of different baskets that were used to store and transport goods, such as the creel basket which was used to carry turf that was cut for heating the home. Baskets were designed to be multifunctional. For example, the skib was used for draining the potatoes, carrying potatoes and vegetables, and also for serving meals. Baskets were commonly made from willow, straw, and rushes, and there were many different forms and techniques. Straw and rushes were used to make other objects such as fishing traps, mummers' hats, St Brigid's crosses, mats and mattresses, hen nests, and animal harnesses. Straw was even used for clothing, hats and bonnets. Wickerwork was used to make currachs, traditional boats with a wicker frame covered with tanned animal hides. Straw work, rush work, and currach making are all currently endangered crafts. 

You can visit our resident willow weaver in the Basket Maker’s Workshop to see some of the skills involved in traditional basketry.  

A man sits weaving willow together in a basket-like formation.


Working with stone is a longstanding tradition across the island, and has been in widespread use for house building and field boundaries since the Neolithic period. Dry stone walls would have often been built by farmers in a variety of styles which vary regionally based on the local stone and traditions. Dry stone walling is a skilled craft, and needs an in-depth knowledge of how to select and balance the stones.

In the recent past, stone cutters, stone carvers, and stonemasons would have worked on higher-status buildings. The stone cutters were responsible for sizing, shaping and finishing (dressing) stone, whilst the stonemasons were skilled builders. Stone carvers were responsible for sculpting decorative features. As well as building walls, stone was also used for roofing in the form of slates or flags. Stone was also used for millstones, the dressing of which is its own unique specialism and was often the work of a travelling craftsman. 

You can see the different ways in which stone was used as you walk around the site. Formal buildings such as churches had squared off smooth faced stones, whilst cottages were built of rubble stone. 


Metalwork encompasses a huge number of different crafts, from the very practical to highly decorative. The work of blacksmiths was wide-ranging, and could have involved shoeing horses, making and repairing machinery, and making gates and railings amongst forging other domestic items, such as hearth cranes, hooks, griddles, harnen stands, and toasting forks.

Another way of producing metalwork was in a foundry. Whilst blacksmiths heat and work the metal into shape, foundry workers cast metal in moulds to make items such as pots, benches or balustrades. Tinsmiths also made and repaired a variety of different items with great skill, including pots, pans, buckets and cups, and were able to do so with relatively few tools. Tinsmiths were often travellers, and would move around the country to ply their trade. Tinsmithing is now a critically endangered craft. Gold and silversmithing both also have a strong tradition on the island of Ireland, with items having been beautifully crafted in these precious metals for thousands of years.

You can visit the Pound Forge and Lisrace Forge onsite to see our blacksmiths at work. 

A blacksmith stands behind an anvil with a hammer in his hand. He is about to hammer a piece of metal.


This island is often associated with thatched cottages, although there are now only 180 thatched buildings remaining in Northern Ireland. Materials, methods and tools used for thatching varied by region, however, today many regional methods have all but disappeared. In Ulster, popular materials included rye straw and flax, but tough grasses and other crops were also used. In coastal areas, thatch was often secured by a network of ropes tied to protruding pegs or stones at the eaves (roped thatch). A prevailing method for other areas was scollop thatch, where the material was pinned to layers below using thin wooden pegs, or ‘scollops’. You can see both methods on display at the museum. 

Thatch in Ireland was traditionally less ornamented than examples found in Britain. Whilst Irish thatched buildings sometimes have decorative features like finials or a lattice pattern created with the fixings, the roof ridge (apex) was often simply finished, either plain, with bobbins (loops of twisted straw), or with copings of clay or timber.  


Timber is used for a variety of crafts, from house building to making furniture, barrels, tools, and hurls, to boat building and wagon building. Each object requires different knowledge and skill to produce it. Traditional joinery used in building is a complex craft. Wood is joined together through interlocking cut-out joints and notches rather than using fixings. The joints need to be strong, and framing involves many elements coming together with precision in order to function.  

Coopering is often associated with barrel making, but the cooper also produced a number of other items. Such items as churns, buckets and tubs needed to be durable for heavy use. Great skill was involved, as vessels needs to be symmetrical and hold precise amounts. Staves, or thin planks, of timber were cut, assembled, and shaped over fire. An iron hoop was then used to secure the vessel.

You can visit Gillespie’s Carpenter’s Workshop to see heritage carpentry in action. 

Carpenter Peter Sloan at Lathe


Ireland is famous for its glassware. The high-quality glass tableware produced in Ireland was highly prized and exported around the world in the 18th and 19th centuries. Waterford Crystal is perhaps the most renowned maker on the island today, known for its “crystal” or leaded glass. Pieces are mouth blown, with different components such as handles and stems added to finish the piece, which is then heated to ensure they fuse before being trimmed and polished. Pieces can then be engraved with patterns. 

Unlike the success of glass tableware, stained glass only came to the fore in Ireland in the 19th and 20th centuries following the Catholic Emancipation and Celtic Revival. The Emancipation created a market for stained glass through church building, whilst the Celtic Revival saw a renewed national pride in local artistry. Although a relatively recent tradition, Ireland gained a reputation for high-quality stained glass in the early 20th century with celebrated local artists such as Harry Clarke and Evie Hone. Today, stained glass making is an endangered craft. 


Signwriting is a skilled craft often associated with traditional pub and shopfronts. However, signwriters could equally apply their skills to interiors, murals, posters, boats, and carriages. Signwriters use a variety of skills and materials. In creating a design, the signwriter must consider scale, proportion, colour and style. They must prepare the surface and create their design, which could be hand-painted, gilded, in 2D or 3D, or even reverse painted onto glass. Traditional Irish signwriting has a distinctive style and colourful charm that contributes greatly to the character of buildings and places.  

A hand-painted pharmacy sign reading 'Ballycultra Dispensary, open every Monday and Thursday' giving the name of the doctor and opening hours.

Built Heritage Conservation at the Ulster Folk Museum

The Ulster Folk Museum is home to a range of rebuilt and replica exhibit buildings. Ongoing maintenance and repair of exhibit buildings as part of a planned conservation programme is essential for the protection of the buildings and artefacts within, and to maintain their historical significance. Traditional heritage skills are essential to the ongoing conservation of the Ulster Folk Museum for the enjoyment of future generations.