A new spin
The linen industry took a serious knock after the second World War but some are carrying on the tradition, working with this beautiful but difficult fabric, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH
TO THE PEOPLE who love it, linen is more than a fabric. They speak about it as though it is a living, breathing thing. In a throwaway world, linen stands for permanence, quality and history. Hermann Baur, who runs one of the last linen mills in Northern Ireland with his wife Marion, describes it with a mixture of passion and frustration.
“Linen is the oldest fabric known to man,” he says. “It’s so strong: you couldn’t kill a good piece of linen unless you burnt it. But it is a labour of love; it takes up so much time and energy. Sometimes it’s a burden, almost an obligation. People keep telling us, ‘you must keep going’, and we’re determined to do that.”
Linen is woven deep into Northern Ireland’s industrial and cultural heritage. The North was once the centre of a thriving linen trade, a world remembered by Belfast poet Michael Longley. In his poem The Linen Industry, he asks: “What’s passion but a battering of stubborn stalks/ Then a gentle combing out of fibres like hair/ And a weaving of these into christening robes/ Into garments for a marriage or funeral?”
In the 18th and 19th centuries almost every town and village in the North had a mill or a factory. By 1921 there were one million spindles and 37,000 looms, and almost 40 per cent of the population was employed in linen manufacture.
Belfast, in particular, became the largest production centre in the world, known colloquially as “Linenopolis”.
The mills – many of which still stand in the north and west of the city – were powered by tens of thousands of local women, known as “millies”. It was a harsh life: the women – who frequently followed their own mothers into the trade – worked long hours in poor conditions, made bearable only by a spirit of stoical camaraderie. In many instances, they were the only breadwinners in their families. Baroness May Blood, who worked in Blackstaff Mills, has often spoken of her time as mill-worker: “When you went through a mill gate you went into a very hard world but women went up the yard singing. People would use ‘millies’ in a derogatory sense but we were proud of what we did.”
According to Hermann Baur, it was the second World War that really signalled the death-knell of large-scale linen production in Northern Ireland.
“That was when the disaster started. Production was nationalised by the British government, and the mills had to sell to the state for the war effort. They lost their customer base then, and after the war they had to start back from a weakened position. The mills had got too big, they were blown out of all proportion, and that meant they could fail too easily. Into this poisonous mix, there entered the final factor: the idea that textiles could be made much more cheaply overseas. That was what eventually finished it.” By the end of the 20th century, the industry had shrunk to 10 companies.
Today, only a handful of specialist producers exist, people like Marion and Hermann, who bought an old scutching mill near Dungiven, Co Derry, when they came to Ireland 15 years ago.° (Scutching – breaking and beating the raw flax fibres – is just one part of the lengthy, complicated linen-making process.)
The Baurs’ mill is close to Upperlands, the oldest linen mill in Ireland, which still specialises in the time-honoured craft of “beetling”, pounding the fabric to give it its characteristic shine.
Marion’s love of textiles started early, in her native Germany, when her mother bought her a child’s weaving frame. She became entranced by the difficult beauty of linen – “it’s not easy to weave; it doesn’t stretch and it needs careful handling” – and resolved to come to Ireland to learn more.
Marion has a weekly stall – Flax Mill Textiles – in St George’s Market in Belfast, where she sells her wares, from scarves to tableware. After its absence of 30 years, she is proud to offer authentic Northern Irish linen – woven on the island – on the Belfast market again.
“We’re the last and once it’s gone, it won’t come back again,” says David Neilly, manager of Thomas Ferguson Linen in Banbridge, Co Down, which opened in 1854. Ferguson is the last jacquard weaver – making figured fabric, with designs woven into it – in Northern Ireland. Neilly says that they have survived because they have always been a small company, focused on giving individual customers exactly what they want, such as a tablecloth or napkins with a family crest.
“It’s upper end work,” says Neilly, “we supply royal families throughout Europe as well as several foreign embassies. We have also supplied Áras an Uachtaráin with linen, and a few exclusive hotels.”
The Irish Linen Centre in Lisburn, Co Down, keeps the story of the industry alive with exhibitions and events. It recently celebrated the achievements of Sybil Connolly, the Irish couturier who introduced Jackie Kennedy to the cool charms of the fabric.
But linen in Northern Ireland is not dead – far from it. The number of producers may be small, but worldwide demand is high. And there are new, innovative ways of using it. An award-winning Belfast company, Tactility Factory, mixes the fabric with concrete to make extraordinary decorative wall friezes.
“Linen is in the blood in Northern Ireland,” says Baur. “We can make it here – so why go anywhere else?”