A History of Irish Linen

'In the 16th century the people of Ireland seem to have possessed a superabundance of linen of which they made extravagant use. At that period it was fashionable to wear chemises, each of which contained thirteen or fourteen yards of linen'. Need I add that was long before the mini-skirt became fashionable. It was equally fashionable in those times for men of course to wear shirts made from yards galore of linen.

From the writings of an English traveller in Ireland in Tudor times we read that 'the native (or wild) Irish wore shirts of thirty or forty ells of linen dyed with saffron'. Since an ell was a yard and a quarter, I'll agree with any of you who feel tempted to remark, 'It must have been a hell of a shirt.' King Henry the eighth tried to enforce a law passed in 1537 in respect to dress. It certainly was a disciplinary Act. 'It decreed that no subject should be shaved above the ears or wear linen dyed in saffron or above seven yards of linen in a chemise or any silk-embroidered kirtle or coat . . . but that all were to conform to the English language and fashions.' Under a further law noblemen were 'allowed twenty cubits or bundles of linen in their shirts, horsemen eighteen, footmen sixteen, garsons twelve, clowns ten, and that no shirt should be dyed with saffron.' Poor Henry, however, was only wasting his time because the Irish, true to their nature, treated it with contempt. Certainly the seven-yard limit was little observed, for at the close of the 16th century another Englishman reported that 'The Irish wore linen shirts of great length (for wantonnesse and braverye)'. Whether it was the climate or the Irish love of warmth, thirty yards was regarded as little enough for an Irishman's shirt, which was still dyed a saffron shade. But please make a mental note of the colour saffron; it is, I submit, partly to blame for one of the less complimentary terms bestowed on the Irish. The Irish were practical in choosing this particular colour because it dispensed with the need for washing - or so the story goes - and the dirty shirt was worn until it literally fell apart. Nor has the Irish race ever succeeded in living down this dirty term, even though by AD 1600 they had adopted civilised convention to the extent of abandoning the saffron dye and actually washing their shirts as often as five or six times a year. Needless to say, these shirts were unlike those of today. They had a novel design in that they were pleated and draped like a skirt, perhaps the effect of feminine influence even in those times. Which reminds me I should add that for the Irish women of those days the fashionable linen article was a 'Leine', which was a turban-like type of headdress.

All this time however, the linen trade in Ireland was little more than a domestic industry. The first definite mention of the trade came in AD 1273 when, according to reports, it was flourishing. Now it is no coincidence that then, as now, the main centre was here in the North of Ireland. It seems indeed likely that the Irish abbeys played a part, big rather than small in setting up the industry. Bangor , only twelve miles from Belfast , had been a monastic seat of learning from about AD 500 and, like the neighbouring ecclesiastical towns of Armagh and Newtownards, was established in a community that had to work for its food and clothing. The influential monks may well have been pioneers in the development of Irish linen as a domestic industry.

It was left to Englishmen to build the trade into a major industry'. Here, two individuals stand out Lord Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, who was appointed Lord Deputy of Ireland by Charles I in AD 1632, and James Butler (a Strafford supporter), Duke of Ormonde, who after the Restoration became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland . To both these men the Irish linen industry' of today owes much.

With a view to replacing it with a good linen industry, Strafford succeeded in destroying the Irish woollen trade which had become a thorny rival of England 's woollen industry. As one chronicle puts it, 'Ireland's woollen manufacture was sacrificed to the jealousy of England in 1698, when such heavy additional duties were laid on the export of woollen cloths as were tantamount to a 'prohibition'. Strafford imported Dutch equipment, had weaving looms built, imported high quality flax seed which he sold at cost price to Irish farmers and altogether vastly improved the quality of Irish flax. He even brought over Continental flax experts as technical advisers to the Irish. All in all, he went to great trouble to help Irish flax, even to dipping his hand deep in his own pocket, but the people he tried to help refused to co-operate and to adopt the new ways and techniques. Strafford retaliated by punishing with fines or imprisonment anyone who continued to work flax in the traditional fashion and by confiscating all the flax, yarn and cloth involved. The inevitable result was mass misery; families were dispossessed and more than 1,000 people died

Strafford's successor, Ormonde, also resorted to importing foreign experts and improving textile machinery, but wisely he enlisted the aid of Parliament in his fostering of the Irish linen trade. In AD 1662 various privileges were legally conferred on Protestant immigrants to Ireland and, four years later, the Irish linen industry was granted tariff protection while premium and bounties were the rewards for proficiency in the growing, processing and weaving of flax. Listen to what one historian has to say: 'Essential encouragement was given to the linen manufacture - a species of business which, tho' less productive than the other (wool) as to pecuniary emoluments, is far more conducive to human happiness.' Gradually, productivity improved, particularly in those areas of the North of Ireland where the English and Scottish planters had set up their homes and in places such as Waringstown where a Flemish colony, operating new techniques, produced a type of cloth that was brand new for Ireland .

This was the solid foundation on which, a generation later, the Huguenots were to build the fame and reputation of Irish linen. Amongst these name builders, that of Louis Crommelin stands highest. One of several experienced and sought-after Continental specialists, he came to Ireland in the company of a large number of fellow countrymen then undergoing religious persecution in France . To Ireland as a sanctuary' they flocked shortly before the end of the 17th century', and they brought with them their skills and know-how in the manufacture of silk and linen. An important nucleus entered the linen trade in Lisnagarvey, now Lisburn, only eight miles from Belfast and one mile from the place where the Lambeg Research Institute stands today. In AD 1698, a resounding date in Irish history, Louis Crommelin, destined to become the father of Irish linen, joined them. He was a member of a wealthy Picardy linen trade family and he had the good fortune to transfer his possessions to Holland before the persecution of the Huguenots reached its peak. Soon the family established themselves in Amsterdam as bankers and merchants and became personally known to William, Prince of Orange ('later to become William III of England ), who wrote his immortal name across the pages of Irish history. It was this 'King Billy', as he is affectionately or derogatively known in modem Ulster , who invited Louis Crommelin to come to Ireland and form 'A Society for the Improvement of the Linen Trade'. Behind the scenes there was of course a political finger; the Irish and the English governments drew up an agreement whereby the Irish woollen industry was to be destroyed and the Irish linen trade developed as its replacement.

Louis Crommelin, who rejoiced in the Oriental-like title of 'Overseer of the Royal Linen Manufacture', modernised the Irish linen industry in every' stage of its processing. As payment for his services he was to receive about £1,180 a year together with salaries for three assistants (£1 80) and a Huguenot pastor (£60). In a matter of years the Huguenot colony, which at its peak numbered only 500 families, held a controlling interest in the Irish linen trade which, by the mid- 18th century, was firmly established in the northern province of Ireland .

Not all the linen bouquets, however, should go to the Crommelins and the Huguenots, whose invaluable contribution and services are indisputable. Some nosegays must also be handed to native Ulster landlords such as Lord Conway, Lord Hillsborough, Samuel Waring, the Brownlows (all of whose names are commemorated in the relevant areas) and London livery companies in Coleraine and district. A handsome tribute is likewise due to the Linen Board, the short name for 'A Board of Trustees of the Linen and Hempen Manufacturers of Ireland', which was formed in AD 1711 to encourage and extend the linen trade. It consisted of eighty members (twenty for each of the four Provinces of Ireland) and it met nearly every week, generally in Dublin . It was the blueprint of the Development Councils of England and remained in existence for 117 years, until AD. 1828. It did excellent work with the many regulations, which it drew up and enforced with the aim of winning a good name for Irish linen. In its list of 'Do's' and 'Don'ts', its bounties and its punishments, it even found room to frame regulations to prevent the pollution of rivers by flax water. Perhaps the generally clean state of Irish rivers today is largely due to the Linen Board.

The Industrial Revolution, which in the 18th century swept over England , had little or no impact on the Irish linen trade for several years. Admittedly, the impetus of the Linen Board had led to the birth of a dozen or so water-driven mills in Ulster , but the wholesale switch to power was retarded by the comparatively cheap labour available in Ireland . In AD 1811, for example, linen yarn could be hand-spun in Ireland and sold in Ulster much cheaper than the same article manufactured by machinery in England . A poor Irish woman, working diligently from morning to night, might earn *tuppence a day and a spinner's weekly earnings could be as high as *2/8d. (*approximately 1np and 14 np) Even when the factory system of organisation for weaving took root in Ireland in the second half of the 18th century, domestic weaving persisted on a large scale, to within living memory in fact. In the 19th century, however, power-driven machinery' made its debut in Irish linen manufacture and gained a foothold that was rapidly to envelop the entire trade. At long last, industrialisation had taken over what for centuries had been a cottage industry'. New techniques began to pave the way for the design of new machines whose performance continually sought improvements to match breakthroughs brought about by continued research. Today, the problems involved in linen manufacture in Ireland are exposed to the 'Private Eye' of science which, though still without a magic wand, manages to work wonders in the unique qualities which are inherent in Irish linen.

To those people who for one reason or another say 'There is no such thing as IRISH linen; the Irish rely on Continental countries for their raw material'. I can only reply, 'Yes, it is true we grow little or no flax in Ireland nowadays and it is equally true that we import flax from various countries. But we process it on our own machinery and we use our expertise and know-hows, which we have, accumulate over the centuries'. If you doubt the very high degree of perfection which had been reached in Ireland in the spinning of linen yarn and the manufacture and bleaching of linen webs, listen to what Stuart had to say in 18l9. 'It is stated somewhere that Bond of Bondville, near Armagh, had presented to the Queen about 1735 a piece of what was then deemed remarkably fine linen. But if we rightly recollect, the degree of fineness specified in the paper would not at present be deemed worthy of record. In spinning yarn some of the industrious females of this country' have arrived at an almost unparalleled degree of perfection.' For instance, it was claimed that at 'Dundonald in the County of Down in February 1799 a woman, out of 1lb and a 1/2 of flax, which cost about *2/~ (10np), produced yarn of so fine a texture as to sell for £5.2. 4½d. A Miss McQuillan, in Comber, Co. Down, spun 64 hanks (of yarn) out of 1 lb of flax (i.e. 1067s lea), producing 1 hank a fortnight.' To obtain this degree of fineness she split the fibre with a needle. No matter where we obtain our flax, though, our products are one hundred per cent Irish linen. We are like the farmers who take milk from hundreds of cows but the cheese they make is their own.

Make no mistake; Irish linen is a reality that is as Irish as the shamrock. So intimately indeed has it been associated over the centuries with the Emerald Isle, especially the Northern Province , that it is directly responsible for adding words to the English language. In County Tyrone , on the outskirts of Dungannon, a famous linen firm, Stevenson & Son Ltd., is situated. Their products, known the world over, take their branded name from the Dungannon locality, Moygashel, (correctly pronounced Moy-ger-shell). If you were asked for 'Ballymenas', would you know it referred to heavy handloom fabric for shirtings that was woven near the County Antrim town of Ballymena only thirty miles from Belfast1. Another linen coinage is 'Coleraines' which was a cloth woven to 38 in. wide to measure 36 in. when bleached.

In many of our provincial towns there are street names which are living memorials of the close link-up between our people and flax. Mill Street is perhaps the most common, but we also have flax Street and Cambrai Street whose European parent added cambric to our language. Linenhall Street and Linenhall Library are reminders of old Belfast with its White Linen Hall that was built in 1788 but later demolished and replaced by the present City Hall.

Nor would a history of Irish linen be complete without a reference to the great famines that struck the Irish potato crops in three successive years, 1845 to 1848. As any student of the famine period must know, the northern counties of Ireland came off best, indeed some of them were completely unaffected. What should be pointed out is that in our province the growing of flax was based on crop rotation. Unlike potato growing elsewhere in Ireland , flax was never grown on two successive seasons in the same field. After the first crop, the ground was given time to recover. Thanks to this husbandry routine the potato crop in Ulster , while exposed to blight in one year, was never in danger in the following year, and thus was spared the hardship caused by the failure of the potato crop in other parts of Ireland during the great famine. Part and parcel too of the history of Irish linen is enshrined in the holocausts of war, particularly in the American Civil War of AD 1861 which cut down the supplies of cotton for export and put the finishing touches to the Irish cotton industry which relied on the U.S.A. for its raw material. This blow was more than off-set by a pronounced boom in linen, demands for which continued to mount.

It was the 1914-18 war, however, that saw Irish linen go into battle in deadly earnest. Once the aeroplanes of the Royal flying Corps had proved their worth, the call for linen went out. It was a vital need as a covering for mainplanes, tailplanes, fuselages and control surfaces. And, of course, the more planes that were built, the more linen was required.

A similar pattern was followed in World War 11(1939-1945) when linen was used in the manufacture of canvases for the Royal Navy and the transport service, for parachute harness and aircraft wing covers for the RAF and for sewing threads for service boots. So much so in fact that supplies of linen for civilian needs were sacrificed for those of the armed forces and the civil defence service. That is why a generation has now grown up largely unaware of the beauty and quality of Irish linen a gap which it is hoped will soon be bridged. Natives of the Province rightly claim that Northern Ireland is the greatest linen manufacturing region in the world. Belfast is the hub of the area and roughly three-quarters of the mills are situated within a thirty mile radius of the city which, by the way, is the political as well as the industrial capital of the six counties which form the province of Northern Ireland , often referred to as Ulster .

This history is largely the text of a talk given, in 1971, by the late Mr Daniel McCrea of the Lambeg Industrial Research Association, Lambeg, Lisburn Antrim, to students at a Irish Linen Guild's workshop for members of the retail trade.
Living Linen