Weaving a bright future for the linen industry

One Belfast start-up is hoping its pioneering research could help build foundations of a newtextile industry in the city

Steven Kirby (left), MD of Axis Composites, with Edward Archer (centre), tech director, and Peter Edgar, Northern Ireland Science Park Connect Programme manager

Steven Kirby (left), MD of Axis Composites, with Edward Archer (centre), tech director, and Peter Edgar, Northern Ireland Science Park Connect Programme manager


A century ago more than 75,000 people in Northern Ireland were employed in an industry that revolved around weaving. At the turn of the 1900s Northern Ireland was a global leader in the production of linen.

Factories employing thousands of people, often in the harshest of conditions, dominated the Belfast skyline and the city prided itself as being a pioneer when it came to advancements in the linen industry.

Today more than a century later the legacy of Belfast’s once dominant textile sector is clear to see - evident in street names such as Linen Hall street or even if you pop in to Belfast City Hall and visit its Bobbin Coffee Shop.

There may still be a tangible link between the city’s textile heritages but their contribution to the local economy, somewhat like a well loved piece of family linen, has faded over time.

Now one ambitious Belfast start up is hoping that its pioneering research could help build the foundations of a new textile industry in the city that embraces Northern Ireland’s weaving heritage and marries it with 21st century technology.

Axis Composites, is a University Of Ulster spin-out company, that was established two years ago on the back of more than 20 years research at the university’s engineering composites research centre.

Its work is focused on the development of unique 3 dimensional yarns and it recently commissioned a 3D weaving loom to manufacturer prototype 3D fabrics which can demonstrate the special properties of these particular hi-tech textiles.

Steven Kirby, managing director of Axis Composites, said these prototype textiles could be used in a wide variety of applications including components for aeroplanes, buses, boats, cars and even wind turbines.

“What we are doing is taking traditional skills developed over hundreds of years from Northern Ireland’s industrial weaving industries and using 21st century technology to modify and specially adapt equipment that can produce hi-tech textiles.

“Our research shows us that the use of textiles in composites produces 3D fabrics that are highly resistant to delamination - ie failure - they can be woven into endless different widths, thicknesses, patterns, shapes and strengths,” Mr Kirby said.

He said this is what makes 3D fabrics so appealing particularly to any manufacturing company with strength and weight challenges.

“The possibilities are endless - not only are 3D composite fabrics lighter and stronger and much more impact resistant they also give manufacturers the opportunity in the future to also reduce costs with cleverer design,” Mr Kirby added.

The fabrics, he believes, would also give designers the chance to explore new opportunities that they might have traditionally had to avoid because of the potential “strain to failure” challenges.

Mr Kirby said the research pioneered in Belfast could have a significant impact on any industry where strength, resilience, durability and flexibility is a critical factor.

He said Axis Composites’s new 3D weaving loom uses strands of advanced fibres such as carbon and basalt to create hi-tech yarns.

The company adapted a traditional loom by rethreading it with strands of carbon fibre and have adapted the traditional weave process of the loom to weave in three dimensions rather than two.

The 3D carbon fibre produced by the loom may look like woven cloth at first glance but a closer inspection would reveal that it is in fact stronger than metal and lighter too.

Like flax the carbon strands can be woven into different patterns only in this case the ultra modern, hi tech material could actually be used in a range of products from space vehicles, to surveillance drones and protective garments.

The Belfast company is one of a maximum of six companies in the world that currently has the capability to weave 3D carbon fibre.

Axis Composites is currently in the process of raising venture capital to take the start up to its next stage.

Mr Kirby hopes the fact that it is able to manufacture 3D fabrics and also demonstrate the special properties of these hi-tech textiles will make it an attractive proposition to potential investors.

“What we are doing is very exciting - we want to create a composites weaving industry in Northern Ireland which can compete globally.

“We are taking traditional weaving which is all but finished in Belfast and starting it up again to make high performance materials and we want to create a manufacturing base in Belfast for that,” he said.

Mr Kirby said although Axis Composites plans to initially focus on the aerospace industry it is determined not to limit its options for future growth.

The company is currently based at the Northern Ireland Science Park and Dr Norman Apsley, the park’s chief executive, says Axis is exactly the type of start up the North needs to encourage.

“If we are to grow the Northern Ireland economy into one of the leading knowledge economies in Europe, we need to connect the dots between theory, practical use and commercialisation,” Dr Apsley said.

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