Living Linen Project

Vol. 9 No. 1 - 2007

The Living Linen Project

by Dr Kathleen Rankin

Many people who have already enjoyed reading “The Linen Houses of the Lagan Valley – the story of their families” by Dr Kathleen Rankin (published by the Ulster Historical Foundation in 2002) will be pleased to hear that Dr Rankin has been working on another historical survey to be published shortly, entitled “Linen Houses of the Upper Bann” – likely to be of great interest to those of us living in the Craigavon area.

When Dr Rankin’s research on this second book brought her to Portadown last year she kindly accepted an invitation to write for our Review a description of the “Living Linen Project” which provides such an important source for the history of the linen industry in Northern Ireland. We are grateful to Dr Rankin for her description of the Project below.

The Living Linen Project was set up in 1995 by a small group of interested people to record as an Oral Archive the knowledge of the linen industry still available within a nucleus of people who were formerly working in the industry in Ulster.

For over three hundred years linen manufacture has been an important industry in Ireland, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Northern Ireland the industry had particular significance in that practically every town and village had a mill or a factory. By 1921 there were almost one million spindles and 37,000 looms, with over 70,000 directly employed, representing 40% of the registered working population, with closer to 100,000 people dependant on the linen industry. Unfortunately there has been a dramatic decline in the Irish linen industry and by the end of the twentieth century there were barely 4,000 people employed and, at most, ten significant companies remaining in the trade.

Volunteers collect oral recordings

This then was the motivation for the Living Linen Project, which aimed to collect recollections of this great industry while it was still possible. Phase I of the Project was initially achieved by a team of volunteers making archival oral recordings, and transcriptions, both being placed in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, Co. Down. These interviews were mainly with those who could best be described as the former managers of the industry, and, in many cases, they were members of the families whose firms made up the industry in the twentieth century. Almost ninety interviews were conducted in Phase I. However, after four years, it became clear to the Living Linen Management Committee that the interviews should be carried on with a much wider range of people than had previously been envisaged and that funding should be sought to enable an oral history researcher to be employed.

Oral history researcher appointed

In 1999 the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded Living Linen a grant for the employment of an oral history researcher to conduct two interviews a week, over a three year period, with all levels of employees, forming Phase II of the Project. This covered managers, foremen, charge-hands, engineers; spinning, weaving, merchanding, bleaching and dyeing firms' employees; machine operatives, cloth inspectors, clerical, bookkeepers, chemical and dye suppliers, mill furnishers, accountants, stores and shops that sold linen, and finally couturiers and fashion designers who used linen. The main condition for Heritage Lottery Funding is that there is unrestricted public access to the Phase II audio cassettes and transcripts.

In the Craigavon area recordings have been made concerning the following firms:

  • Achesons Ltd., Portadown
  • Lurgan Weaving Co., Lurgan
  • Clendinning & Co. Ltd., Lurgan
  • Johnston Allen & Co. Ltd., Lurgan
  • McCaw Allan & Co., Lurgan
  • Mourne Linen Co., Lurgan
  • Seawright Douglas & Co. Ltd., Lurgan
  • R. Uprichard & Co., Lurgan
  • Blackers Mill, Ltd., Portadown
  • Brownlow Textiles, Lurgan
  • Wm Ewart & Son Ltd. (Tavanagh, Portadown)
  • Lurgan Linen Co., Lurgan
  • Milltown Bleaching Co. Ltd., Lurgan
  • Hamilton Robb & Co. Ltd., Portadown
  • Spence Bryson & Co. Ltd. (Clonavon, Portadown)
  • York Street Flax Spinning (Lurgan Thread Works)

It is possible to access a full list of the companies covered by the Living Linen recordings via the Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland web site and selecting the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum at

Initially, in Phase I, various Living Linen committee members made, in the main, recordings of the owners and managers of the old linen industry. With others I had the privilege of invitations to homes of linen merchants where, in some cases, records of their lifestyle, including portraits and photographs, going back over many years, were held. It therefore appeared appropriate to compile a book concerned with a historical and architectural study of these houses, and this material was published in 2002 in "Linen Houses of the Lagan Valley". Material has also been gathered on the many houses built by linen merchants along the Upper Bann Valley, and Living Linen will be supporting a similar publication concerning these in the not too distant future.

Public access

The Living Linen Index, available at the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum, lists linen companies with the associated names of people who have carried out an oral recording, along with the requisite LL number. The recordings may be listened to at the Administration Building, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Cultra, County Down, Northern Ireland. A telephone call to make an appointment at the museum is advisable at (028) 9042 8428 before accessing the collection.