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Warp and weft: the story of linen in Ulster

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Linen production in Ulster

Ulster has long been associated with the production of linen for domestic furnishings and fashion. This story looks at the people and processes involved in the recent history of linen, the ‘Queen’ of fabrics, from the sowing of seeds, to the sewing of seams.

Flax is the common name for the genus Linum (family Linaceae), a plant with small blue or white flowers on top of a thin stalk.  Linen is made from the fibres inside the bark -like stem of the flax plant.

Sowing

Sowing

The flax crop was sown in springtime

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Pulling

Pulling

A field of flax in full bloom

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Retting

Retting

men unloading flax to steep in water

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Scutching and Hackling

Scutching and Hackling

Hackling flax by hand in preparation for spinning

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Spinning

Spinning

Spinning flax by hand required a wheel

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Hand-weaving

Hand-weaving

Hand-weaving linen

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Power looms

Power looms

Jacquard weaving on a power loom

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Bleaching

Bleaching

Linen fabric laid out on the bleach green

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Finishing

Finishing

Two men attending to a beetling ‘engine’ for finishing linen cloth

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Stitching

Stitching

The sewing room at Hanna Brothers

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Embroidery

Embroidery

A woman and young girl embroidering linens

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Marketing

Marketing

A window display of linens

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Sowing

Image: Sowing flax seed by hand, using the ‘broadcast’ method. Toome, County Antrim. Early 1900s. 
Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.1019)
Sowing flax seed by hand, using the ‘broadcast’ method. Toome, County Antrim. Early 1900s. Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.1019)

The flax crop was sown in springtime. By mid-summer the flax had grown to around one metre high and had a pale blue flower, often described as ‘the wee blue blossom’. Flax is an annual plant, with new seeds sown every year. It requires a temperate, moist climate in which to thrive. Flax was sown by hand, scattered across fields ploughed to a fine soil.

 An acre of flax could produce twenty pieces of finished cloth, each up to twenty-five yards long.

Pulling

A field of flax in full bloom, ready to harvest. County Antrim, early 1900s
Image by W.A Green (HOYFM.WAG.1043)
A field of flax in full bloom, ready to harvest. County Antrim, early 1900s Image by W.A Green (HOYFM.WAG.1043)
A group of men pulling and binding bundles of flax. County Antrim, early 1900s 
Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.1011)
A group of men pulling and binding bundles of flax. County Antrim, early 1900s Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.1011)

After growing for around 100 -120 days and flowering, the flax was ready to harvest. Flax was pulled rather than cut, in order to preserve the maximum length of the plant. Cutting wasted three to four inches of the valuable fibres in the stem.

Until a machine was developed to pull flax (around the 1940s) it was a hard, backbreaking job done by hand.  As the plants were pulled from the ground they were evenly aligned in straight rows and tied in beets (bundles), stacked upright to dry in groups of stooks. An average worker could pull around twelve stooks a day, with the best managing up to twenty.

Retting

Image: A view of men unloading flax to steep in water. Toome, County Antrim, early 1900s.
Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.1013)
A view of men unloading flax to steep in water. Toome, County Antrim, early 1900s. Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.1013)

Retting was the process of soaking flax in still water to soften the plant stalks, in order to separate the fibres from the woody core and outer casing.

This process took place in a specially made hole, variously called a retting dam, lint dam, or lint hole. The flax stayed submerged in the dam for about ten to fourteen days depending on the weather. It could also be dew retted by being left in the field for a number of days.

The bacteria in the stagnant water aided the retting process. This also created a pungent and deeply unpleasant smell, familiar to those who worked with or lived close to a Retting dam.

Scutching and Hackling

Image: Hackling flax by hand in preparation for spinning. County Antrim, early 1900s.
Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.1027)
Hackling flax by hand in preparation for spinning. County Antrim, early 1900s. Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.1027)

Scutching was the process by which the woody outer husk of the flax stem was broken and discarded. The desired result was a clean, tangled mass of long, soft fibre.

The job of the hackler was to turn these masses of fibre into smooth uniform strands, ready for spinning. This was achieved by pulling the scutched flax over a series of combs to remove the tangles. The combs were made of wooden blocks with metal teeth in. The end result was a hank of soft lustrous fibre, resembling a fine head of ‘flaxen’ hair. Skill was required to produce a clean finish as this dictated the price achieved at market.

By the early 1900s this process had largely been replaced by water- powered Scutch mills, dotted across the landscape of Ulster.

Spinning

Image: Spinning flax by hand, winding yarn on a clock reel. County Antrim, early 1900s
Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.1018)
Spinning flax by hand, winding yarn on a clock reel. County Antrim, early 1900s Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.1018)

Spinning flax by hand required a wheel, and the ability to keep the fibre damp whilst working. Flax is dry by nature. The hackled fibres were fed onto the wheel in a twisting motion.

After the yarn was spun it was taken off the filled bobbins and wound onto a clock reel, then loosely twisted into skeins or hanks. The skeins were wound onto bobbins for weavers. The introduction of wet-spinning machines, in large mills from the 1850s onwards, gradually replaced hand­- spinning as a domestic activity.

In 1900 the York Street Flax Spinning Company Ltd. in Belfast had 4,000 workers, 55,000 spindles and 1,000 looms.

Hand weaving

Hand-weaving linen, Waringstown, County Armagh, early 1900s
Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.285)
Hand-weaving linen, Waringstown, County Armagh, early 1900s Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.285)
Ballydugan weaver’s cottage at The Ulster Folk Museum
Ballydugan weaver’s cottage at The Ulster Folk Museum

By the early 1900s, there were over 1,000 hand- looms employed in the manufacture of damask linens in Ulster alone.

Despite the competition from huge industrial mills, a market still existed for fine linen cloth hand- woven in sheds attached to a worker’s cottage. Hand- loom weavers earned a living by producing the finer damasks which machines were unable to produce. This tradition of hand- weaving bespoke orders for table linens, handkerchiefs and dress linens survived a number of challenges in the late 1800s, not least the competition from cotton.

Today at the Ulster Folk Museum, Cultra, the Ballydugan Weaver’s Cottage is the setting for regular demonstrations of linen weaving on an early 1900s loom.

Power looms

Image: Jacquard weaving on a power loom.
Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.1007)
Jacquard weaving on a power loom. Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.1007)

The 1850s saw the development of weaving processes and machines which would revolutionize the linen industry. This description of a Lisburn factory, from May 1855, offers some insight into the scale of operations -

The factory contains 101 looms…. Other contents include dressing machines, winding and warping machines. Sixteen horse power engine fitted to drive 300 looms.

By 1870 Ireland had fifteen 15,000 power looms at work; this figure grew to 35,000 in 1910. A worker on a power loom could produce more than four times as much cloth as a hand weaver in the same time. Most of these factories were concentrated in Ulster, earning Belfast the nickname of ‘Linenopolis’. The development of Belfast Docks and the expansion of the railway network in the late 1800s serviced this linen industry well.

Bleaching

Image: Linen fabric laid out on the bleach green. Glenmore, Lisburn, County Antrim, 1910
Image by Robert Welch (BELUM.Y.W.01.70.4)
Linen fabric laid out on the bleach green. Glenmore, Lisburn, County Antrim, 1910 Image by Robert Welch (BELUM.Y.W.01.70.4)

Linen woven in its natural state produced a cloth known as ‘brown linen’. Brown linen markets had been held in Ireland since the 1700s, with merchants buying cloth to bleach and finish to a lustrous white finish.

Great care was required to achieve a crisp white finish without weakening the cloth. On linen greens (usually fields beside the weaving sheds)) lengths of cloth were spread in rows to bleach under natural sunlight. Linen was a valuable commodity, so great care was taken to guard the cloth in the field, with courts levying harsh punishment for thefts.

In time, this practice was replaced by factories using chemical processes to bleach and dye the fabric. Some of the biggest linen bleaching factories were those at Glenmore, near Lisburn; the Old Bleach Linen firm at Randalstown, County Antrim, and Kirkpatrick Brothers of Ballyclare, County Antrim.

Finishing

Image: Two men attending to a beetling ‘engine’ for finishing linen cloth.
Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.1052)
Two men attending to a beetling ‘engine’ for finishing linen cloth. Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.1052)

Customers for the highest quality and most expensive table and bed linens demanded a crisp and even finish to the cloth, achieved through the ‘beetling’ process.

The cloth was wrapped around a large wooden cylinder which revolved slowly while a row of heavy, smooth –ended ‘beetles’ pounded the cloth repeatedly. This process would continue for up to ten hours at a time, eventually producing a smooth and glossy finish that enhanced the natural lustre of the fibres.

Today, the last remaining working water-powered beetling mill in Ireland is the Wellbrook Beetling Mill, a National Trust property near Cookstown, County Tyrone.

Stitching

Image: The sewing room at Hanna Brothers garment factory in Adelaide Street, Belfast, June 1934.
Image by A.R. Hogg (BELUM.Y2938)
The sewing room at Hanna Brothers garment factory in Adelaide Street, Belfast, June 1934. Image by A.R. Hogg (BELUM.Y2938)

The huge output of linen cloth, in a wide range of qualities and finishes, supported two related industries in Ulster, namely the garment industry, and that of embroidery.

Stitching factories employing thousands of workers, mostly women, were centred in Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Ballymena, and across the mid-west of Ulster. The Factory System, and the installation of power- driven sewing machines from the 1880s onwards largely replaced individual makers working for agents in their own homes.

Using locally woven linens these factories made aprons, shirts, blouses and underwear, table linens, bed linens, handkerchiefs, and shrouds. Derry factories in particular gained an international reputation for the quality of their shirts and collars, producing over one- million shirts in 1899.

Embroidery

Image: A woman and young girl embroidering linens near Newtownards, County Down. Early 1900s.
Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.294)
A woman and young girl embroidering linens near Newtownards, County Down. Early 1900s. Image by W.A. Green (HOYFM.WAG.294)

Adding value to finished linen cloth was achieved through ornamentation. The addition of embroidery or lace to plain fabric enabled manufacturers to charge more for premium quality work.

Up until the 1950s much of this hand embroidery was stitched by outworkers, women and young girls working in their own homes, embroidering bed linens, underwear, handkerchiefs and christening robes. The agents for this work were often employed directly by linen firms. By the early 1930s many of these firms had installed machines capable of replicating the look of hand embroidery and the role of the outworker began to decline.

Some of the finest work was sold in the Belfast store Robinson and Cleaver at Donegall Square, with the shop maintaining a workroom of embroiderers to cater for bespoke orders.

Marketing

By the early 1900s the global market for Irish linen required agencies for firms in London, New York, San Francisco, Paris, Melbourne and Chicago.

The Irish Linen Guild was established in 1928, to promote the goods at home and abroad through exhibitions and trade fairs. The art schools of Belfast, Cork and Dublin produced a steady stream of designers specifically trained for the damask and embroidery industries. By the 1950s however, the public taste for easy care fabrics and competition from machine embroidered fabrics marked the start of a steady decline in the popularity of linen, with only a few major producers and craft weavers remaining today.

 In 2020 the last remaining damask weavers in Ireland are Ferguson’s (John England Textiles) of Banbridge. Ferguson’s are the principle suppliers of fabrics for costumes and set design on the programme Game of Thrones, taking Irish linen once again to a global audience … via the medium of television.

Image: A window display of linens in the Irish Linen Warehouse, William Smyth and Son, College Street, Belfast, 1930s. Image by A.R. Hogg  (BELUM.Y1831)
A window display of linens in the Irish Linen Warehouse, William Smyth and Son, College Street, Belfast, 1930s. Image by A.R. Hogg (BELUM.Y1831)

A window display of linens in the Irish Linen Warehouse, William Smyth and Son, College Street, Belfast, 1930s. Image by A.R. Hogg  (BELUM.Y1831)

 

Irish linen continues to inspire today’s designers of furnishings and dress. The firm of William Clark and Sons at Upperlands, Maghera, established in 1736, is Ireland’s oldest linen firm, producing high -end traditional and contemporary fabrics for an international market.

The SS20 collection by Alexander McQueen included work inspired by flax grown at an organic farm in Northern Ireland.