Reflections on Irish Linen


Reflections on Irish Linen

by Leslie Calvert

Linen is the Queen of all fabrics! It is more durable, more absorbent, smoother and more elegant than any other cloth. Medically it is best to wear next the skin. Soldiers of the old French Foreign Legion, on their marches over the hot desert, wore no socks, but had their feet bandaged, like a boxer's hands, with fine linen strips. Only linen would do!

Linen has adorned the Palaces of Kings and Emperors of history. The durability of linen can be seen in the Ulster Museum in Belfast, where there is an Egyptian mummy, wrapped in linen bandages that are four thousand years old and still intact. Over the centuries the Greatest Masters have painted their oils on linen canvas which is still woven locally today.

Until the Jet Age, aeroplanes of all kinds have had their wings and bodies covered with linen, the most suitable material that would not rip, after bullet penetration. Throughout the ages linen has made sails for our ships, and tents for our armies.

The Ancient Egyptians and Babylonians could weave finer linen than we can today, but it was all plain cloth. Their fabrics were woven on a vertical hand loom about which we know little, and the same could be said of their growing and processing of flax which is the basis of linen cloth. The Nile Valley holds many other secrets like bleaching, finishing, and marketing, if at all. Slave labour was apparent; but they could not weave Damask. Plain cloth, in history is measured in thousand years, Damask is measured in hundreds. The word Damask appears often and will be explained later.


To produce linen, the plant flax has to be grown. The demand has always been there but the supply has been difficult. To grow flax, the land had to be ploughed, harrowed, cross ploughed, and harrowed again and rolled.

The seed was then sowed, harrowed in and rolled again. Nature and the elements took over, but the better the seed bed, the better would be the crop. Much depended on the ploughman. He was a quiet fellow of good skill, much in harmony with his pair of horses. The excellence of linen depended on this quiet fellow, who ploughed a straight furrow.

Linen Damask weaving is linked with that part of the linen quality and heritage which was linked to nature and the elements. There was much preparation for flax growing which took more out of the land than any other crop.

Nature responded, and in due course thousands of flax stems grew up, three to four feet in height. A tiny blue blossom appeared on their tips, followed by a natural coloured seed pod; and the flax was ready for pulling.

Flax pulling by hand was a back breaking job, taken on by casual workers, who needed the cash. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field.

Since both sexes were involved in flax pulling, there was, inevitably, much fun and at least some romance. Many a man met his future partner for life, behind a flaxstook. The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat' or `rot' the inside wood part from the outside fibres.

Then began the most difficult job in the making of linen, lifting the heavy, smelly, slimy, wet beats from the flax hole to the bank. Men had to work for hours, up to the waist in this wet clabber, while others took the beats and spread them on the fields to dry.

Spreading was also a back breaking job, as was lifting some day later, when dry. Today these heavy jobs would be done by Harry Ferguson's hydraulics. The flax was ready for scutching, a dusty and dangerous art. This meant the removal of the centre wood part from the outside fibres, and was done when the scutcher pressed handfuls of flax against a large four bladed flail revolving at speed. It cut away the wood part and left the scutcher with handfuls of long blonde fibres, like a young lady's head of long blonde hair. Many an arm or hand was cut off in this process. The wood part became 'shives' and were burned as waste in a field. It was also dusty work as I record the words of an old scutcher:

"There is dust in my eyes and dust in my hair,
Dust in my fingernails;
Dust in my mind, dust elsewhere
Eternally prevails."

Dam ratting of Flax in Lint Hole

The fibres were now ready for spinning.

Before spinning, let us compare the basic elements of two neighbouring fabrics; cotton and linen. The cotton base is almost 99% cellulose; the linen base is similar; but, linen fibres have 10% impurities. This 10% is the whole secret of linen durability and smoothness. In spinning, handfuls of fibres are laid side by side, overlapping by about half. The first sight of thread on yarn appears in a long drawn out "slovel" which was given a few twists, to keep it loosely together, and then dipped by rollers, into, and out of, a hot bath. It was brushed by a long revolving brush which laid permanently, all the loose fibres along the side of the slovel which was then twisted according to quality required. These actions gave linen durability and smoothness superior to any other fabric. Linen thread, almost unbreakable, is used for sewing.

Part 2: Weaving

Linen yarns are used for warp and weft, in weaving linen cloth in all its variations. The stronger yarns are warp and the finer yarns are weft. The warp must always be superior, as it has to endure the strain of rising and falling to make the warp `shed' for weft across from side to side. It is all a matter of joining warp with weft; the shuttle with the beam, in the most skilful ways.

Linen weaving goes back to pre-historic times. Prior to 1700 A.D. linen in Ireland had only been for domestic use and of little importance, but hereafter it took a status that was international. At that time Yorkshire had been granted Royal Rites in Woollen Trade, and Lancashire that of cotton. About 1700 A.D. Ireland was granted the rites of Linen Industry.

This coincided with the arrival, in England, of Huguenot refugees from Northern France and the Lowlands, escaping from religious persecution and oppression. The authorities, not knowing what to do, sent them to Ireland. It was a most astute move for they brought with them many skills, and were soon to settle, and apply them to their new environment. Many were their skills including farming, house building, and Damask weaving. When the ancient Phoenicians came from the east to trade their `beautiful' webs of cloth for tin from the mines of Cornwall, and for hunting dogs, the word `Damask' appears. This was "beautiful cloth." Today it is known as the beautiful cloth, into which the design is woven, as opposed to printing, embroidery or any other process. At that time little was known of Damask but it was soon to take on an important part in our economy. Under the influence of the Damask Loom of the Jacquard Type Huguenots, Double Damask Irish Linen soon became world famous and the essence of super quality cloth.

A damask loom of the Jacquard type

We in Northern Ireland have been the experts in Linen Damask for two centuries. Our product in this line had been in keen demand all over the world, especially in America, where Irish settlers have demanded it as a status symbol and heritage.

We could weave your photograph in detail, into the centre of your table cloth of finest Double Damask, Irish Linen that would last forever. We could weave you any picture, pattern or design you wished in any quality, or quantity you desired at minimum cost. The crest of your Hotels or Clubs we could supply cheaply, if you dealt directly with our factory and ordered in bulk. This meant an order from your line of hotels or clubs, that would keep twenty looms, in Northern Ireland, weaving for one year, or many orders for individual clubs that would do the same.

Imagine! Our supergrade linen, guaranteed for twenty years! You could use for one year only, and then sell to jobbers who were waiting to pay more than you paid a year before. You make a profit on your linen. The jobbers sell to retailers who also make a profit.

All this has happened in our time, and is the essence of commerce. Is it right or wrong? I know not! But linen Damask became the peak of all weaving; the huck towelling, and diapers for absorption, added good support, as did the art canvas and the sheeting, and sail and tent canvas for the soldier and the tailor of bygone days. The humble glass cloth which leaves the glass clean of any fluff must be mentioned. Would you blow your nose on a five pound note and throw it away? You would not!

At work at the Cambric Loom

In 1930 the finest man's linen handkerchief was like tissue paper, soft and smooth, but would last for twenty years, it cost £5. Not many were bought by ordinary folk, but there was a market with the millionaires. Today this handkerchief would cost £100. I cannot see many blowing their noses on it. But consider the £5 note of the time. The ingredients of the note was pulp; linen pulp only. I have known a rag merchant who made his fortune by collecting only linen rags. He lived in a luxurious villa by the sea and was a wealthy man. £1 notes, £5 notes, £20 notes, £200 notes were all made from the linen rags collected by this man. Here again we have linen lasting forever.

Have you any pure linen rags to give away or sell? Linen rags are at a premium today, as are the stocks of good linen Damask, in the cupboards of the prudent housewives of earlier generations. My advice is: sell or use them to enrich the quality of your living. Who would try to paint a picture using two white paints of the same hue, on a background that is exactly the same. It seems impossible, but that is what has happened in Damask Weaving.

It is all a matter of weaves from plain cloth, one up, one down; through the various twills, bucks, diapers, to the eight leaf twill, which is Double Damask (one lip and seven down) The loops in Double Damask of one warp up and seven down means the weft jumps over seven warp threads and vice versa, so that a real pattern clearly appears on the finished cloth. This is all very technical but look at your Double Damask clothes and you will appreciate the study and the excellence of them from all angles.

It has been our way of life, the culmination of which has been a product which is the best in the world, and of which we are proud.

In 1698 Louis Crommelin had been appointed to assist in establishing a Linen Industry in Ireland. This trade began in Lisburn and along the Lagan Valley. Gradually it spread over the whole land, from Ballymoney to Cork, but remained chiefly an industry of Northern Ireland. Many of the Huguenot names remain. Dunkirk Road, near Waringstown, and the name Duprey are Huguenot words which exist today.

Part 3: The hand loom weaver

The hand loom weaver was a man of consummate skill physically and mentally, and was an individual. I believe that today very few could do his job, such was the intense concentration required.

During his working hours at his loom, from dawn to dusk, he was completely engrossed in his trade. All his facilities were fully employed. His left arm pushed and pulled the 'slay' to bring weft into warp "shed". The right arm sent the shuttle from side to side leaving a trail of weft, from the bobbin in the shuttle, to be driven home into the warp shed by the "reed" in the slay. Down below the treadles, up to eight in number, were operated by his right foot. These treadles very cleverly made the warp "shed" while his left foot worked the big single treadle which controlled the Jacquard Cards above, which made the Damask pattern. Again this explanation may be technical stuff but it was all a series of many simple movements that combined into one big complication, worked in rhythm.

After a hard week's work most of the hand loom weavers took Saturday afternoon off and many went to the hunt. Each of these kept a pet in the form of a hound dog of which each was proud. The pedigrees of these dogs went back for generations. They took their dogs to a prearranged meeting place, about noon. After some talk as to route, an assembly was formed and the hunt began. There were no Red Coats, Tall Hats, or horses at this meet, and no stirrup cup in front of the big house, they were just ordinary workmen out for a few hours in the fresh air of the countryside. The hare was seldom killed, to the relief of most. At the finish some went straight home to prepare for Sunday School, and some had a pint of stout in a pub.

The men, with the excellent skills of the hand loom weaver, had not the craft of buying and selling. Those who had not the skill, soon saw the opportunity, and started collecting the webs of the skilled, and taking them to market. Because of his intensive concentration, the Hand Loom Weaver left it to the crafty one to negotiate his price. The crafty one became the merchant and the weaver remained as he was "A Weaver." The crafty men become the merchants, and eventually the owners of the factories.

Part 4: The power loom

The factories or mills came in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and by 1850 had made a good start in Northern Ireland. Usually the spinning section became the mill, and the weaving part the factory. `Companies' were formed and soon a lively industry was created. It had its ups and downs but gradually it flourished. The Power Loom came into its own.

Headles were now controlled by a system of cams below, and the harness of the Jacquard machine was driven by power of steam, working from above. The power loom weaver required little skill but a great amount of perseverance, and patience. All he had to do was stand and watch, and change the shuttle. The Jacquard cards seem to have been the first real computer; it gave me my "Longest Day," which was more than fifty years ago.

I arrived at five to eight a.m. and `got in.' Those who arrived after eight did not 'get in.' They stood around `hoping' but had to go home and lose their half day's pay, and the firm lost the profit on a half day's production.

Part 5: The longest day

I was sent to weave with the best power loom weaver in the place, at eight a.m. The noise of all these power looms around was devastating; the rhythmic movements of various actions was stunning. I watched and awkwardly tried to cope. There was no clock. When I thought it was 12.30 lunch time, I found it only 9.30 and so the day went on. Another two hours and it was only 10.30. When lunch time came at 12.30, I thought it was six o'clock. The afternoon seemed even longer. My only consolation was that this was only temporary; but I admired my power loom weaver. He had something of which I was not possessed; perseverance to the highest degree! Few men could cope contently with this job, but he and his family did so for three generations. I have great regard for them all. They are my heroes!

This job would have destroyed my soul as it has done to many artists, poets, and musicians. I admired most of these folk around me, but I could not be of them. I still have contacts that are cordial, but have doubts, as to the exploitation. Many of the maidens have missed their marriage; many of the males are still bachelors. There is something wrong here! But who am I to say what it is?

Part 6: The villages

The village where I worked has been blessed with almost full employment. Housing has been supplied at a cheap rent. Since the turn of the century there has been a free doctor and medicines! All the houses have had free tap water and flush toilets, and this was long before local towns and even cities had these amenities. They were Model Villages which the firm provided: warm and dry houses at cheap rent, and manpower for the factories.

They are still going full time and full speed as regards employment but on recent visits I have observed a certain weaver whom I had known fifty years ago. She was a very good weaver who knew her job. Fifty years ago she was weaving two napkin looms and doing well. Today, before she retires on pension, she is weaving the equivalent of forty napkin looms and producing twenty-five times the cloth she was in pre-war times. There is nothing wrong with that production! Good for her! But what about the twenty-four jobs lost in this process? These modern looms are made in Germany and are expensive. There is no shuttle and hence no weft winders. Modernisation has caused much unemployment, but that is progress which must go on.

Part 7: Three sisters

There were three sisters who lived in a cottage, three miles from the factory in which they worked as Power Loom Weavers about 1900. They were old when I was young and they told me about their earlier life. They got up at 4 a.m., lit the fire with sticks and turf, washed, cooked their breakfast, cleared up and made their beds. They left home at 5 a.m. to walk to the factory, arriving in good time to `get in.'

Each wove her looms from six to eight when there was a breakfast stop when they ate what they had brought. From 8.30 to 1 p.m. they wove their looms and then had another break of half an hour to eat the lunch which they had brought. From 1.30 to 6 p.m. they wove their looms, and at 6 p.m. started for home, arriving at 7 p.m. Then the fire had to be 'lit' again and the evening meal prepared, eaten and cleaned up. It was now 8 p.m. and time for bed as they had to get up at 4 a.m.

Hand Warping at Messrs Walpole's

This was their routine for the week. Saturday was a half day when each took her share, one to shopping, one to cleaning and one to cooking, baking, for the week. Two of them taught on Sunday morning in the Sunday School so preparations had to be made. All three attended Sunday morning service and evening service in the local church. That was the weekly routine. As to the yearly routine there were six days holidays, Christmas day, Boxing day, Easter Saturday, and Monday, and the twelfth and thirteenth of July.

When asked if they had been more content they almost shouted, "No! It was pure slavery! We had not a minute we could call our own; but we were proud to have earned our own living." It is pleasing to know that in their closing years each sister had a relatively good retirement pension which gave comfort and security, the like of which they had never known before.