What is Linen?
Linen is a yarn or fabric made from the cultivated flax plant, named Linum usitatissimum. Many believe this domesticated species developed during cultivation. It is a cellulosic plant fibre, or bast fibre, and it forms the fibrous bundles in the inner bark of the stems of the plant. The plant is an annual that grows to a height of about a metre and the fibres run the entire length of the stem and help hold it upright.
The fibre strands are normally released from the cellular and woody stem tissue by a process known as retting (controlled rotting). In Ireland this was traditionally done in water, rivers, ponds or retting dams.
The original flax used for its fibre was the wild, Linum angustifolium. This is not grown commercially, and is found in southwestern Europe, including Britain, to the Mediterranean, Madeira and the Canaries. Experts consider it to be a distinct species in its own right and the most likely progenitor of Linum usitatissimum the cultivated flax. Linum angustifolium is the old name and is now called Linum bienne Mill.
Flax was almost certainly one of the first plant fibres used for making textile materials. Many countries throughout the world can relate their association and history to this fibre. Archaeological excavations of ancient Swiss lake dwellings have found evidence of the use of, linum angustifolium flax, for twines and nets around 8000 BC.
In 2009 researchers discovered flax (Linum usitatissimum) fibres in the Upper Palaeolithic occupations at the Dzudzuana Cave, Georgia. One of the threads had twist, and several were spun. Others showed dyed. This led researchers to surmise that this represents production of textiles for some purpose; possibly clothing. These remnants of flax, more than 30,000 years old, are the oldest known traces of textiles. It is intriguing that the fibres found were Linum usitatissimum; one might have expected Linum bienne mill (ex. Linum angustifolium), or some other wild forbear. As Linum usitatissimum is common cultivated flax it suggests the use of flax for some time previous to this date; allowing time for cultivation.
Better known is the extensive use of flax and linen in ancient Egypt. Commercial scale production was taking place around 4000 BC to meet the heavy demands for clothing, sail cloth, furnishing fabrics and funerary fabrics.
Linen was probably first introduced to the British Isles by Phoenician traders around 900 BC. They traded for tin, which was important in bronze production, most probably bartering for it with Egyptian linen. Some consider the Romans to have introduced it. Whichever it was, it was the Romans who established linen factories in Britain and Gaul to supply their colonial forces.
It is not considered to have come into widespread use in these islands until the Middle Ages.
History of Irish Linen
One shouldn't get introspective when dealing with the history of the famous brand. Much of the history of Irish linen was determined by outside factors and influences. Everything from myth and fable to protectionism, war and political considerations, competition with cotton, technological advances, industrial espionage and more.
Early myths and legends discussed by Wilkinson, 1858, show that the origins of flax-dressing is one of the economic arts which the Irish believed the result of supernatural teachings. Until the 19th century Irish peasants repeated the mythical story of its introduction into their island by the "dwellers on the Shahbna mountain", or Shliabh na Mann mountain (modern Slieve na Mann?). These talented people's, who had the name Mann, were foreigners, from a distant land (could they have been from the Isle of Man?), who long ago settled on this mountain, and first instructed the natives in the art and management of flax, and hemp.
If there is any truth in this we shall probably never know, but more conventional learning seems to believe flax was grown in Ireland as far back as 1000 BC. Two thousand year old evidence of curing flax has been found in bogs all over Ireland. Linen production is detailed in the Brehon Laws and linen clothing and vestments are commonly referred to in early Christian times. The ancient Irish Brehon laws made it obligatory for farmers to learn and practise the cultivation of flax.
In Tudor times linen must have been in great abundance, because in 1536 Henry VIII wrote to the town of Galway, that no man, woman, or child, do wear in their shirts or smocks, or any other garments, no saffron, nor have any more cloth in their shirts or smocks, but 5 standard ells of that country cloth. (Ell = 1.143m = 45 inches).
Also, in Tudor times there is evidence that flax growing was on so vast a scale, maybe because of the overly long lengths of linen used in their shirts? That Parliament passed a law forbidding the retting of flax in rivers, to protect the fish life from the effluent. Which no doubt resulted from the de-oxygenation of the water as a result of the retting process.
In the 1632 the Lord Deputy of Ireland, Earl of Strafford, later followed by the Duke of Ormonde, built up and encouraged the Irish linen industry. Mainly to replace the Irish woollen trade, which was competing with the English trade. Strafford imported high quality flaxseed, and Dutch equipment, and had new looms built. These he sold to farmers at cost price. He also brought over experts on the subject from Europe to help the Irish.
There was however, resistance to the new methods and Strafford had to punish with fines those who continued to use the older traditional methods. This caused much misery and deprivation.
Ormonde continued this work, but enlisted the help of Parliament, and focussed more on protestants. Gradually, productivity improved, particularly in the North of Ireland. This formed a foundation for further improvements by the Huguenot immigrants.
King Charles II assented to a series of Acts prohibiting the export of Irish wool, cattle, etc., to England or her colonies, and prohibiting the direct importation of several colonial products into Ireland.
Ireland directed the exports to France and Spain, and the woollen manufacture continued to increase.
The English trade was getting even more concerned because the Irish were getting rich, and competing strongly with their exports. They addressed their concerns to King William, stating that the growth and increase of the woollen manufacture in Ireland had long been, and would be ever, looked upon with great jealousy by his English subjects, and praying him, by very strict laws, totally to prohibit and suppress the same. The Commons said likewise and William answered comfortably I shall do all that in me lies to discourage the woollen manufacture in Ireland, and to encourage the linen manufacture there, and to promote the trade of England.
He was as good as his word, and encouraged the Irish Parliament to pass an Act, putting twenty per cent duty on broad, and ten per cent, on narrow cloths: But it did not satisfy the English parliament, who made a perpetual law, prohibiting from the 20th of June, 1699, the exporting from Ireland of all goods made or mixed with wool, except to England and Wales, and with the license of the commissioners of the revenue duties had been before laid on the importation into England equal to a prohibition, therefore this Act has operated as a total prohibition of the exportation.
So, the Westminster Parliament prohibited the export of manufactured woollen goods from Ireland in 1699, although woollen yarn was still produced both for domestic use and for English manufacturers. The restrictions on the woollen trade increased in importance the linen industry, particularly in Ulster. In 1696 a Bill went through the English parliament which encouraged the manufacturing of linen in Ireland.
From the early 18th century, Irish linen was duty-free to England and to British Plantations in America, and by the end of the 18th century linen accounted for about half of Ireland's total exports. In the early 18th century much of the Irish linen went through the port of Chester, this reached it's zenith in the mid 18th century, much of the trade moving to Liverpool.
It states in the 'House of LordsJournal Volume 17: 17 March 1704', Journal of the House of Lords: volume 17: 1701-1705, pp. 484-87.
"The Committee also heard several of the Gentlemen of Ireland who acquainted them, "That the Application of the People in Ireland to the Linen Manufacture was not a Matter of Choice, but was pursuant to the Desires of the People of England, and to silence a malicious and groundless Calumny, of their affecting an Independence upon England: That all Trade in Ireland would in some Degree affect the Trade of England but yet they hoped that would not be a sufficient Argument to induce England to debar them of all Trade: That it was impossible for them to hope that the Linen Manufacture would become National, unless the Encouragement was general, which must be by allowing them a Market: That, though they might import their Linen into England Customfree, yet the Profit was too little: That, considering the Freight, which must all be paid down to The West Indies by the Usage of Merchants, the Loss of Time, and Want of Stock, the Trade would not answer the Charge before it could go from England exceeding the Prime Cost: That, as to the Objection of Collusion, their Ships went now with Provisions directly from Ireland and that it was a Mistake in the Commissioners of the Customs to say, that Ships, which went with Provisions from Ireland to the Plantations, did use to touch in England that they believe there could, not be One Instance given of their doing so but it may be true, that English Ships do often touch in Ireland, for taking in Provisions." They said, "That the importing of Scottish Linen into Ireland is the greatest Prejudice to them that can be, and therefore so high a Duty is laid upon it in Ireland as amounts to a Prohibition and in Revenge of that, the Scotts have forbidden the importing of Corn from Ireland into that Kingdom and they are willing to agree to any farther Prohibition of Scottish Linen: And that they are willing to submit to any Regulation for preventing of Collusion, upon the ing such a Liberty to them but they desire it may not be so restrained as to hinder the Manufacture from becoming universal."
After Louis XIV of France renounced the Edict of Nantes, in 1685, many of the Huguenots who had to flee the country settled in the British Isles. Amongst them was Louis Crommelin, who was born, and brought up as a weaver of fine linen, in the town of Cambrai.
Although the linen industry was already established in Ulster, Louis Crommelin found scope for improvement in weaving, and his efforts were so successful that the Government appointed him to develop the industry over a wider range than the area around Lisburn. The direct result of his good work was the establishment, under statute, of the Board of Trustees of the Linen Manufacturers of Ireland in the year 1711. The Board of Trustees of the Linen Manufacturers for over 100 years (1711 to 1823) nurtured and controlled the Irish Linen Industry. The Boards legacy is the World-renowned standards and quality of Irish linen today.
For many hundreds of years up until the 18th century linen had a very strong presence in clothing, furnishing fabrics and industrial fabrics, such as sail cloth. With the growth of the cotton plantations in the Southern States of North America, and the influx of vast quantities of low-cost cotton on the markets of Europe and North America. Linen's dominance came under threat, and in the early 1770's there was a serious downturn in the trade.
This change was not only due to greatly increased supplies of cotton, and an over-production of linen, but also when hand spinning got replaced by mechanical spinning. Flax spinning frame development lagged decades behind that of cotton. The linen industry suffered from the problem of a regular supply of yarn. James Hargreaves (also Hargraves) invented the spinning Jenny for cotton in 1767. The foundation of machine spinning of flax was laid by John Kendrew and Thomas Porthouse or Porteous, from Darlington. In 1787 they developed a flax spinning process after seeing the machine spinning of cotton in use in Lancashire, and patented it in 1788, with financial backing from James Backhouse. Much work by John Kendrew and his associates resulted in a machine capable of spinning the notoriously difficult fibre without having to process it in a way which deprived it of valuable properties. The first machine was set up in Low Mill (sometimes called Lead Yard or Bishop's Mill) on the River Skerne at Darlington. They then each set up a mill of their own, Kendrew at Haughton-le-Skerne and Porthouse near Coatham, both on the same river. They also issued permits, enabling others to build mills, including in northeast Scotland.
John Marshall (1765-1845) of Leeds heard that two men from Darlington, John Kendrew, a glass-grinder, and Thomas Porthouse, a watchmaker, had registered a patent for a new flax-spinning machine. Marshall visited the men and purchased the right to make copies of their invention.
After taking on two partners, Samuel Fenton, a draper, and Ralph Dearlove, a linen merchant, Marshall leased Scotland Mill, at Adel near Leeds. Early in 1788, Marshall, Fenton and Company, began spinning flax yarns. However, the machines did not do well. Breakages were frequent and the yarn came out lumpy and hairy. Marshall thought the quality was no better than hand-spun, although the machines were quicker and cheaper. Although this was debateable at the time because the wages of female hand spinners were so low. Another perennial problem in the trade was that the manufacturers of woollen, linen, and cotton fabrics found it very difficult when the spinners were at the harvest, to keep the weavers in work. This problem increased when John Kay invented the flying shuttle in 1733. This greatly sped up the previous hand weaving process. So it had been the aim for some years to develop a spinning machine. Indeed in 1761 the Royal Society of Arts published the following advertisement:
March 16th 1761: 'For the best invention of a machine that will spin six threads of wool, flax, hemp or cotton, at one time, and that will require but one person to work and attend it (cheapness and simplicity in the consideration will br considered part of its merit) for the best, fifty pounds for the second best twenty-five pounds'
Marshall had little technical experience, but he spent the next few years trying to improve its performance. He made little progress until he recruited Matthew Murray (1765-1826), to help him. At some point during these years of experimentation with Matthew Murray, Marshall refused to pay further royalties to Kendrew as he argued that his and Murray's machine was technically far removed from the Darlington prototype. Kendrew sued Marshall for £900, but in 1793 only £300 was awarded. A broken man, Kendrew left Low Mill and died at Haughton in 1800.
At any rate by June 1790 Marshall and Murray had created an efficient flax-spinning machine that produced good quality yarn. However, it was slow and could not match cotton-spinning, and it could only spin coarse yarns.
In Ireland most saw no advantage installing costly machines, while finer yarns could be spun at a lower and more variable cost, and in sufficient quantities, by women in their homes. There had been such great improvements from the work of Board of Trustees of the Linen and Hempen Manufactures of Ireland, and in 1764 a Lurgan carpenter named Thomas Turner made in the old spinning wheel, yarns of a higher count, and a child was able to produce twice the measure which a grown person before could do with the ancient machine.
In the 1780's Ireland gained more commercial freedom, but in 1798 exports fell due to insurrection in the country. The close of the century brought difficulties and depression. However, the problems were temporary, and they led to a treaty between the Parliaments of England and Ireland, which resulted in the of the two countries under one legislature.
Ignoring the politics of this decision it did result in greater commercial freedoms.
In May 1810 Napoleon I , as part of a process known as the Continental System (Blocus continental), tried to stop English cotton fabrics entering the European continent. He offered a reward of one million francs to any inventor who could devise the best machinery for the spinning of flax yarn. Within a matter of weeks Philippe Henri de Girard (1775-1845) patented in France flax spinning frames for both the dry and wet spinning methods. His inventions were also patented in England on November 7th, 1814, by a merchant, Horace Hall, from Golden Square, Middlesex. Hall took out this patent after two of de Girards partners, Lanthois and Cachard, sold him the designs of de Girards machines for £25,000 (£2m in 2018) under somewhat dubious circumstances. These ideas were then taken up by Robert Busk, of Hunslet, Leeds. However, this venture was unsuccessful. De Girards inventions did not receive the reward and were not suitably recognised in his native France, and after an invitation by the Austrians he moved to Vienna in 1815 and set up a flax mill at Hirtenberg. He later went to Poland and set up a mill at a village which received the name of Girardow. However he never found success and his inventions never really proved commercially advantageous. Although, after his death, his work got recognised and his descendants received a small pension from the French Emperor.
After adaptations linen spinning in the British Isles did not really become a commercial success until James Kay (1774-1857) developed successful wet spinning process for flax, in 1824, supposedly based on Arkwrights 1769 spinning frame. Kay was born at Edgefold Farm near Entwisle, Lancashire. He became successful spinner with mills at Preston, Penny Bridge and Pendleton, and died at Turton Tower, Turton, Lancashire, in February 1857. The title of his patent was, "New and improved machinery for preparing and spinning flax, hemp and other fibrous substances by power". He found that flax could be drawn by steam- powered spinning machines into a fine yarn ready for weaving if it was first soaked in hot water (macerated), and the reach (ratch) between the drawing roller and retaining rollers got reduced to two and a half inches. There was however, some difficulties with James Kays (then of Preston) patent application in 1825, which got taken out for fourteen years. It appears he had been badly advised when his patent got drawn up. This resulted in Marshall of Leeds disputing if his new development was valid. Kay had to sue Marshall in court in 1835 for non-payment for the use of his patent, but the defendants disputed whether the patent was valid on the grounds that so far as the invention was new it was useless (maceration process), and that so far as it was useful it was not new (spinning process with 2.5 inch ratch). In 1839, the Court found that as the patent got taken out for an invention consisting of two parts one of which was not new (considered too similar to Horace Halls patent) the patent was found void, he also failed in his appeal of 1841. McCutcheon states in his book, The Industrial Archaeology of Northern Ireland that,
"Kays patent included two distinct specifications, one referring to the maceration of the rove, which was held to be novel, the other referring to the contraction of the reach between the drawing and retaining rollers on the spinning frame to a precise 2.5 inches. The latter stipulation was challenged as being an infringement of an earlier spinning system designed by Philippe de Girard (British patent No. 3855 of 1814) and led to the invalidating of the entire patent of 1825. Despite this Kay was without question the originator of the wet spinning process, though this was automatically released to the entire flax-spinning industry by the legal invalidating of his patent"
Whoever was really responsible for this new process for the wet spinning of flax it was Kay who was responsible for it being generally accepted by the trade and it was a definite turning point as it provided the means to spin, in quantity, very much finer, and more even and regular yarns. It is stated that before his invention in 1825 the finest linen yarns which could be spun by machine was 40 lea, after up to 200 lea could be spun, and they were better quality than hand spun, and required less skill. He also recognised the commercial sense of it because it got stated that at this time cotton cost 10d per lb., and when spun was worth 18d whilst flax cost 6d, but when spun was worth 4s, an uplift of 800% when compared to less than 100% with cotton.
There is little doubt that history in the British Isles has credited this invention to James Kay. Although, in 2 Dec.,1826 shortly after Kay's patent, Philippe Henri de Girard seems to have been prompted to write to the Editor of The Manchester Guardian:
"Sir:- I beg to submit to the flax-spinners of this country a few observations, which , I believe, will be highly interesting to them or, at least, will correct a misrepresentation that has been made, and render the merit of an important improvement to the real inventor.
A few months ago, a gentleman of the name of Kay, excited a strong sensation in the trade, by announcing a new method of spinning flax, by which much finer and better yarn was produced, than by any other process previously adopted. He announced this invention not only as new, but as his own the results of his experiments were published in many provincial and London papers and he granted to several flax-spinners, the right of using his invention, for which he obtained a patent.
The public will now hear, perhaps with some astonishment, that all this noise was made for a discovery long since published on the continent, and even patented in England twelve years ago. This new process of spinning, announced by Mr. Kay, is the same which I invented fourteen years since, and which is established, with great success, in France, Saxony, and Germany. A patent was taken out in England, in the month of May, 1815, by my partners in Paris, Messers. Cachard and Lanthois, in the name of Mr. Horace Hall.
In this patent is clearly described the principle of reducing the flax to its elementary fibres, by dissolving or moistening the glutinous matter which unites them. The merit of this discovery belongs to me: and the right of using it in England, to Mr. Horace Hall, if any but certainly neither of them to Mr.Kay.
This gentleman proposes a solution of potash for separation of the fibres. This was my first process, specified in my patent in France, with another much preferable to this. I have spoken of the solutions of potash, soda, or soap, in my patent, only to prevent the imitators from invading my rights by resorting to the use of those solutions but a much better method will be found in my explanation and drawings, attached to the patent of Mr. Horace Hall.
The yarns produced from my flax-spinning manufactory can be seen on applying to me, and got from my manufactory, at Hirtenberg, near Vienna: or at that of Messers. Kraus and Brother, at Schemnitz, in Saxony, who several years ago, adopted my principle of spinning. The superiority of my process will be evident, when it is stated that we spin commonly 120 leas to the pound, while the first spinners in Leeds do not exceed 42, except as experiments.
Why spinners of Leeds have not taken notice of this important part of my inventions, whilst they adopted, with great advantage, the other parts of them, described in the same patent of Mr. Horace Hall, is difficult to explain on any other ground than that, owing to its extreme difference from the usual practice, they doubted of its efficacy: or thought that such a decomposition as it causes would alter the strength of the yarn, which is by no means the case: on the contrary, my yarn has always more strength now than the common yarn because the fibres are more perfectly parallel together.
The part of my invention that I alluded to, and which has given to the flax-spinner of England the means of making the first improvements in their old process was this, of reducing the flax into rovings, by drawing it through endless chains and combs, which the flax spinners have adopted these ten years, and which seems to be the only method for making a regular roving of these substances. I am glad that they are now disposed to adopt the second and important part of my invention, and cannot do less than thank Mr. Kay for having called their attention to it.
Since the taking out of this patent. I have made many further improvements in my method of spinning among others I have invented a machine for combing the flax, much superior to those now used in Leeds also another for making the first slivers, which are made in Leeds by hand, &c. &c.
I shall be ready to afford full information to any persons requiring it, on these new improvements, by applying to me, at the address hereafter. Your most obedt. servt."
PH. DE GIRARD
Care of Messers. Harman and Co. London
Philippe Henri de Girard definitely felt aggrieved. Why Horace Hall put forward no case for himself is not clear. No doubt it was not easy for the French to deal with England at this period in history, with the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), being so shortly ended.
Whatever the case was up until the 1820's the spinning wheel and the hand-loom dominated the Irish linen industry it was a domestic industry with spinning and weaving mainly taking place on farms and in villages. The lag in the technology allowed cotton to become established and industrialised before linen. However, development of steam-powered wet spinning by James Kay in 1825 brought about great and almost immediate changes in the Irish flax spinning trade. Hand spinning quickly declined, and the flax spinning trade became industrialised in large Belfast mills. These developments not only spelt the end of the hand spinning of flax, but also stifled the further development of the Irish cotton-spinning trade.
The paradox in this was that although cotton was probably the flag-ship industry of the industrial revolution, because it was in that industry that spinning and weaving were first mechanized. Up until 1750, unlike linen, wool and silk, production of cotton was not mechanized at any stage. Where water powered fulling mills had been around for hundreds of years, and water power got adapted to production of linen from the late 17th centuries and early 18th centuries, with introduction of water powered scutching, washing and beetling mills.
The sluggishness of the Irish economy in the first half of the nineteenth century was the result of abolition of protective tariffs in the decades after the 1801 . By the terms of the Act of , Ireland and Britain became a single free-trade area. However, some Irish industries were given time to adjust. There would be a 10% duty on some eighteen products entering Ireland until 1821. These included leather, glass, and furniture. Woollen and cotton goods got even more favourable terms. In 1820, these duties got reviewed and the Government first suggested that the 10% rate should remain until 1825, then be phased out, and finally abolished in 1840. However, the free traders in the Government had all duties abolished in 1824. Unprotected Irish industries then faced large-scale English competition. From the 1820s there was widespread distress and unemployment in much of the country as industries based on small-scale handcrafts gradually gave way to cheaper imported mass-produced goods. Ireland had little coal and no iron so was at a real disadvantage during the industrial revolution, and Britain's increasing dominance of the Irish market owed much to quicker and cheaper transport. Invention of the Hargreaves spinning Jenny encouraged development of a cotton trade in the 1770's. The cotton trade was centred mainly in the north-east of Ireland where many of the techniques already learnt in the production and sale of linen could be applied to cotton.
However, the cotton era in Ulster was short-lived. In the early 1820s, abolition of protective tariffs left the industry open to competition from Lancashire, on top of this there was a general demise in the United Kingdom cotton industry. Protected by tariffs and based almost entirely on the home market, the industry faced succession of crises in the early 1820s. Then in 1828, Mulholland's, one of the largest cotton mills in Belfast burnt down. The industry never recovered, but time proved this to be a blessing.
Linen got promoted by the Linen Board (with a government grants of £20,000 p.a.). It got worked mainly on small farms by farming families. They were more interested in the spinning and weaving than the flax cultivation, as it occupied female members of the family, scutching and spinning, all year round. With male family members occupied by weaving at quieter times of the farming year. The Linen Board did not sufficiently promote good practices in the growing of flax, and hence it was of very poor quality, when compared to flax from continental Europe. Therefore with the ending of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, and Europe opening up to trade again, the Irish could not compete with competition from areas such as Belgium and Bielefeld. The linen trade began to decrease, and it was only kept afloat by encouragement from English flax-spinners who wanted to support their trade with Irish weavers. However, they had a very difficult task as there was much resistance to machine spun flax as the Irish were rightly very worried it would put an end to hand spinning. However, by offering incentives such as extended credit terms they got the weavers to start using machine spun yarn. Once the Irish weavers realised its superior quality, and their resultant increases in production there was no going back.
Rather than reinvest in cotton the Mulholland's investigated the possibilities of moving into linen. They saw that large amounts of Irish flax got exported to England and was machine spun. Much of this was then re-exported to Ireland for use by the hand weavers. They visited the North of England and saw James Kay's process, which they brought back to Belfast. After a small-scale trial in 1828-29 T. & A. Mulholland opened an 8000 spindle flax-spinning mill in Belfast in 1830. Although they may not have been the first to see the opportunity, it was the most significant as this was one of the biggest mills in Belfast - The York Street Mill. The project was a magnificent success, and there was a move by other troubled cotton-spinners, as well as other businessmen, into flax spinning. By 1850 linen spinning in Belfast was very much greater than cotton spinning. The York Street Mill by 1856 had 25,000 spindles and was probably one of the largest mills of its type in the world, possibly second only to Marshall's of Leeds. This concentration of mills, mainly in Belfast, put many of the traditional hand spinners out of business. With this it also caused many of the weavers to move into the northeast; nearer supplies of yarn.
With the devastation caused by the Great Famine in Ireland, it forced the large industrial spinners to look for alternatives to the hand-loom weavers. Power-looms got improved and there was at first a slow movement in that direction. Development of the Jacquard machine in the early part of the 19th century greatly improved production of figured designs.
Irish linen experienced somewhat of a revival during the American Civil War when there were disruptions to the supply of cotton reaching Europe. There was a shortage of cotton goods, known as the Cotton Famine, on the world market, and Irish linen took up the slack. There was significant expansion in the industry, and for many enormous profits. Even after the end of the Civil War in 1865, the momentum got maintained and companies continued to flourish until 1873. Belfast was by then the largest linen producing area in the world, and this continued until WW1 and the city well-earned the nickname of Linenopolis. As Manchester was the cotton capital, Belfast was the linen capital of the British Empire.
As industrialisation developed and grew in the 19th century, conditions for the employees often worsened. Legislation got introduced slowly, at first to help those under 18. Later working hours got reduced. Despite the hardships there was a special camaraderie, and for many it helped them through these hard times, and sometimes even led them, years later, to remember their time in the mill with some fondness.
However, with the revival of the cotton industry, and its ability to produce low-cost goods, and an Irish linen industry with over capacity. Companies inevitably began to get into difficulties, and there were many closures. The industry fought back with increased efficiencies, and new developments. There was a short pick up in fortunes in the early 20th century, but introduction of man made and synthetic fibres, and rising costs, the situation became very difficult for the mass production of Irish linen. Many old companies were production orientated and could not adjust to the new challenges. They continued trying to sell to their traditional markets. They were weak on marketing, and often used the concept of the linen industry being a 'craft industry' as an excuse for keeping old and outdated machinery and ideas.
The industry enjoyed a rebirth during WW2, and was also in demand during the Korean War of 1950-53. However, then it declined rapidly in its traditional markets.
With cheaper alternatives there was a reduction in demand for the lower quality, more bulk produced Irish linen, from hotels, hospitals and other institutions. Only the better quality linens got retained by the very top hotels, restaurants and airlines who wished to use the Irish linen brand to differentiate themselves from their cheaper competition. However, these better quality linens were not being taken up by volume users.
Sales also held up to a large extent in certain sectors of the retail and tourist markets, and suppliers had to foresee the specific requirements of these niche markets.
However, Irish linen was never completely supplanted. Its brand, and unique qualities of comfort, drape and its distinctive appearance kept it a niche in the luxury market, and its unique physical properties maintained its use in industrial textiles. These advantages were well backed up by the confirmed quality, and the confidence and equity established in the Irish linen brand.
In the latter part of the 20th century efforts increased to promote linen to the apparel trade. At this time there was a growing reaction against the synthetic fibres, as they had been probably over used for apparel in the 1960's. In the 1970's the promotional work started to pay dividends, and by the late 1980's linen was in general use in the top of the range apparel in most countries in the developed world. Linen for apparel was by now far outstripping its traditional household textiles and industrial sectors; the sectors Irish linen was best known for in the past. However, much work was still needed to build its name in these new markets.
Irish linen is still woven today in the same traditional areas, and by descendants of those who have worked in the industry, and passed down skills, learned over many hundreds of years.
Today the Irish linen industry is very much smaller than it was in the past, because competition at the lower end of the market, for more every day linens, has long since been won by cheap products from low- cost countries. The Irish linen companies that remain weaving in Ireland focus on the quality end of the market, and on trying to give the customer more precisely what they want.
After all this history Thomas Ferguson (a part of the Franklin's Group) is the very last Irish linen damask weaver left weaving traditional household linens; others remain weaving plain apparel linens.
In 2012 the Franklin's Group took over the brand of John England, a leading company in innovative fabrics for the apparel and fashion industry. Franklin's Group through the skills of Thomas Ferguson were able to add Jacquard fabrics to the fashion linens on offer. This is a new product for the Irish linen industry and presents many exciting opportunities for the future, and as long as the industry can continue to give people what they want, and there are discerning customers with an appreciation for the craft, quality, heritage, and brand of this great natural product it is here to stay.
"I shall do all that in me lies to discourage the woollen manufacture in Ireland, and to encourage the linen manufacture there; and to promote the trade of England."
King William III 2nd July, 1698
Copyright © 2009 Thomas Ferguson & Co Ltd. The Research for this History of Irish linen was carried out for Thomas Ferguson & Co Ltd, and must not be copied, or used without their written permission.