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.