In a quiet side-street of old East Berlin, a German couple are flying the flag for a near-extinct tradition: Irish linen. In the window display are flax, linen yarn and a sign in old Irish script reading “An Muilleannlin”. Inside, customers browse classic products such as napkins and table-runners, while Berlin designers inspect the rolls of colourful linen mat.
Irish linen, made by Germans and on sale in Berlin? This most unlikely cross-border co-operation began a quarter of a century ago when Marion Baur and Hermann Glaser-Baur bought and renovated a derelict 250-year-old flax mill near Limavady in Co Derry.
Today the couple plant and harvest seven acres of their own flax, spin it into yarn and weave it into what has been prized for centuries as “the aristocrat among textiles”.
"As a weaver it was always my idea to go to Ireland, though before I went I'd never woven linen," says Marion Baur. "I hoped there would be a niche for me – and there was, by going into business for myself."
After getting her first loom as an eight-year-old, the 56-year-old Baur began training aged 15 and learned about the Northern Irish linen industry. She found the tradition on its knees when she arrived in Derry. She was encouraged to persevere by local linen man Wallace Clark, whose family has been in the business since 1736.
At the Clark mill in Upperlands, the Baur cloth is bleached, died and "beetled" – slowly passing through an apparatus like an upside-down piano, where wooden hammers pound the rough cloth into a soft sheen that once made Irish linen famous worldwide.
“Strong as steel, delicate as silk and with an appearance as varied and attractive as an Irish landscape,” wrote Wallace Clark, “it’s not surprising that it has been preferred by people of good taste for well over 4,000 years.”
While Marion weaves in Northern Ireland, Hermann divides his time between the Berlin store and a stall in St George's market in Belfast. He admits that, proud history or not, linen is never less than a handful.
“It gives you grief from the start: the flax is hard to sow and harvest, the linen is tough to dye and it crumples just by looking at it,” he says. “Yet, done right, it lasts forever.”
Wallace Clark died in 2011, but the Baurs still do business with the Clark plant and are friends with Wallace's son Bruce Clark.
After the region’s bigger linen producers sold off their looms, Bruce Clark says the steady revival of interest in Irish linen now largely hangs on the skills – and production capacity – of smaller craft producers.
“People like Marion and Hermann are playing a vital role in reintroducing Ireland to linen.”
Besides production capacity, a second impediment to a full-blown linen revival is a lingering cultural ambivalence to the cloth. Though flax was once grown all over Ireland, the focus shifted to northern counties from the 19th century, for several reasons, including preferential export treatment by London.
Wool and tweed production was relatively simple and stayed in local Irish communities, particularly Catholic communities in Donegal. But the specialist skills required to produce linen saw it concentrated in the hands of a few experts, often Protestant family-owned cloth finishing firms in the six counties. The popular perception lingers on of wool as the textile equivalent of hurling and linen as rugby: a British-controlled, elitist business.
Despite historical shadows, Clark says northern Ireland communities have welcomed the outsiders reviving the tradition.
As well as the German couple, Clark has seen a growing group of young designers on both sides of the border. He also knows a Colombian woman outside Rostrevor doing “wonderful things” with linen.
“Sometimes,” he says, “it takes an outsider’s eye to see beauty of Irish linen.”
Back in Berlin’s Flaxmill shop, Marion Baur’s fabric has a loyal and growing fan base among designers with a good eye.
Michael Schneider (his surname literally means tailor) has popped in to pick up some metres of linen for making cushions he sells at a local market. Stroking some of Marion's beige linen cloth, Schneider is clearly entranced.
“It’s such a beautiful material, look how it glows,” he says.
Nodding in agreement is Renate Weber. With a surname that means "weaver", she makes her own scarves and is wearing one in a sky-blue cloth she wove herself from cashmere, silk and Marion Baur's linen yarn. "Ireland was famous for its linen and then, suddenly, it was gone," says Weber, who learned to weave in the 1950s. "But there's growing interest here in Germany for sustainable, hand-crafted and environmentally-friendly clothing, where you spend a little more but have something that lasts."
The Baur’s Irish linen outpost in Berlin is as much a drop-in centre as shop, a welcoming place where customers sit around a table drinking coffee and swapping stories. Their mill in Northern Ireland, meanwhile, has become a cultural hub in the community. Once a year the Baurs hold an open day and, in the evening, hold a seisiún, bringing life back into the mill they rescued. A place where, to quote a local spinning song, “the wheel is still turning round”.