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The Linen Trade

The Linen Trade

Linen manufacture has been an important industry in Northern Ireland for over three hundred years, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Practically every town and village had a mill or a factory. The Linen Trade in Ireland in the 18th Century is illustrated through the Hinks engravings.

For further information on the history, various stages in the preparation of linen and production processes, follow this link to the excellent "Living Linen Project' website:

http://www.irishlinenmills.com/index.htm

Malcolm Haughton's memorandum of 1904 cites the following:

My father, Benjamin Haughton, son of Benjamin and Abagil Boake (Abigail Boake) was born in Ballytore, co. Kildare, Ireland, shortly before his father's death in 1790.

At an early age he came to Lurgan, in the north of Ireland, to serve an apprenticeship to his uncle, Tom Haughton, who was engaged in the Linen business. The climate and the soil of the North of Ireland was then and is still well adapted to the growth of flax. It was then the custom of farmers to bring their crops to the nearest county town for sale.

It is a remarkable fact that the farmer knows little about the value of his flax crop untill he brings it to market as the value of his flax is determined by the fineness of the fibre and only expert buyers are able to determine its value. For this reason the farmer accepts after due deliberation , the highest price offered and I have heard my father say he frequently got more than he expected.

At this early period the flax after being assorted in the warehouses was sent to the spinning mills and after being turned into yarn it was distributed to hundreds of weavers throughout the country having as a rule but one loom in each house. In this way the north of Ireland was more prosperous than the rest of Ireland and Belfast became the seat of the Linen Trade but the 'handloom' has long since been largely replaced by the 'power loom' and both young and old who formerly worked at home are now employed in the factories and bleach works.

The bleaching of linen, being a separate occupation, my father decided after the death of his uncle, to follow this branch of the business at Banford, about six miles from Lurgan and for more than 50 years the trade mark of 'Banford Bleach' had an enjoyable reputation.

Brief outline of the production of flax to linen

Sowing: Flax is sown in March. The plant ripens by the end of June into golden yellow color, and then it flowers, dotting the fields with blossoms of violet, blue and white. This display is over quickly, however, for each flax plant blooms for one day only.

Harvesting: The plants are pulled up rather than cut so as not to shorten the fibres (Pulling).

Drying:
After harvesting, the flax is spread on the ground to dry, bundled into 'knee-gaits' and stored.

Rippling:
Once dried, the flax is drawn through a comb to remove the seeds from which linseed oil is extracted.


Retting/Steeping:
The flax is then immersed in water, either a stream, lake or pond, to soften or partly rot the stems. The flax is spread out in the fields and exposed to rain, dew and sunshine for several weeks. This exposure to moisture breaks down the pectin that binds the fibres together. Also known as 'dew-retting'.

Scutching:
beating the flax straw to remove the woody outer layers. This was done by hanging the flax over an upright board and beating it with a wooden knife. It was then hammered or beetled to break the fibres up into finer strands. The first scutching mill in Ireland was set up in 1740, in Holywood, Co. Down. By 1830, there were at least 580 flax scutching mills in Ulster rising to over 1400 by 1867. ((Flax to Fabric, Irish Linen Centre)

Hackling, Dressing, Sorting:
all of these processes involved the combing and cleaning of the flax. 'Roughers' separated the 'line' (longer, finer fibres) from the 'tow' (courser, shorter fibres). A hackler sorted the flax into different grades by the feel of the flax. This was considered to be a highly skilled trade, which required the ability to dress flax properly in addition to having an eye for determining the quality of the yarn or thread into which it would be spun. Hacklers were higher-paid and high-status workers in the mill. Roughers were lower-paid and workers of lower-status.

Spreading, Drawing, Doubling:
this produced a 'sliver' or ribbon of even weight. Passing through a 'roving' frame it emerged as heavy thread-like rove which was then twisted and wound onto bobbins, ready for spinning.

Spinning:
the linen yarn was hand spun by drawing out and twisting the flax fibres to form a continuous length. The wheel was kept in motion by a foot-operated treadle, and the yarn was wound onto a bobbin.

Weaving:
before mechanisation, weaving took place in the home on hand looms. Many households had two or more looms. The finished length of cloth was called a web. When it was taken off the loom, it was still the original brownish colour of the yarn. The weaver took his webs to the local town where there was a weekly market which was attended by dealers who were linen drapers, purchasing the webs on behalf of the bleachers.

Bleaching & Finishing:
the brown cloth passed through a series of processes involving the use of acids, alkalines and exposure to the atmosphere, resulting in white linen.

Beetling
: the linen was then given a smooth finish. The beetles or mallets pounded the surface of the cloth closing up the weave and producing a dense sheen.

The Bann Valley

Tullylish is situated at the north-west end of County Down and played an important role in the development of the linen industry. Many Quaker families contributed significantly to the Linen Industry and to the development of bleaching. There were many bleaching greens along the River Bann between Gilford and Banbridge. By 1834, the Ordnance Survey Memoir for the parish of Tullylish mentions ten bleach mills and ten more from Seapatrick to Banbridge. (Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland Vol.12)

In addition to bleaching, Tullylish was also an area for yarn spinning and thread twisting mills. Before mechanisation, yarn was spun by women and girls. Mill-based spinning expanded rapidly and powerloom weaving began to spread in Ireland from the 1860s. By the 1880s, powerloom weaving took over from the handloom weaving of fine linens such as damask and cambric.

Tullylish saw all phases of linen production from flax scutching (reducing the flax to the long fibres), to yarn and thread spinning, to hand and powerloom weaving, to bleaching, to stitching and embroidery.
(Marilyn Cohen, Ulster Folklife, Vol. 30, 1984)

Dunbar McMaster & Co., opened Gilford Mill in 1839 for the spinning and bleaching of yarn and thread and developed a world-wide reputation and market. The days of spinning as a cottage industry came to an end when mechanisation took over. It traded under the name of Dunbar Dickson & Co., until 1865 for the manufacture of linen and cambric. The owners built one of Ireland's first factory villages. Most people knew one another or were related to one another. This was useful in terms of recruitment and also made for a friendly atmosphere among the workforce.

The average life expectancy of a mill worker was between 46 & 56 years and the length of time to be able to work under the conditions in a mill such as Gilford Mill was 27.5 - 39 years depending on which job was done (according to Dr C D Purdon, 1877, a Belfast surgeon).

Carding (combing & preparing for spinning) was particularly dusty work and was usually done by young girls. A carder's average working life was estimated to be 15 - 17 years. The life of a girl who began carding at 18 ended at 30. Carders like scutchers, roughers and sorters, often turned to whisky for relief - "anyone that was chesty, the only freedom they had was a drink. It cleared the pipes you see"
(Messenger, Betty, Picking up the linen threads (Belfast 1980)

Belfast

By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Belfast, was the biggest linen producing centre in the world. The number of spindles in operation rose by 5% between 1905-13 and the number of power looms producing linen by 18%. Several new Irish linen factories were built in Dunmurry, Donegal and Victoria. The immediate future looked bright and prosperous with the government demand for Irish linen as a war material: Irish linen was in use in kit bags, tents and even aeroplanes. The linen industry added considerably to the wealth and development of the city. Without it, Belfast would have remained a market town and port in the north of Ireland. European competitors in the linen industry impinged on Belfast markets.

Working conditions in the mills

The linen owners and managers worried about the fluctuating economy of the industry while their workers were faced with more personal concerns: coping with the detrimental effects of linen work on their health and staving off poverty. Most of the workers were women and children. Women did the same, skilled work as men but earned only half of the amount paid to men . Children between the age of 12-14 provided another source of cheap labour. These children were half-timers, who spent one half of the week in the factory and the other half at school. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a mill worker in Ireland spent 55 hours a week at work. By 1916, the Irish working day began at 6 am and finished at 6 pm while on Saturday , the working day lasted 5 hours. Sometimes Irish linen mill owners brought their workers back in to the mills in the evenings and on Sundays. Although this practice was illegal, the legislation was inadequate and employers were not penalised for the offence.

Working conditions in the mills were poor. For all types of linen spinning and weaving the atmosphere needed to be hot and humid. In the wet spinning rooms, where most of the children worked, the floors were always wet and the workers were barefoot to stop themselves slipping. Clothes were saturated with the spray from the spindles. Children in the wet spinning rooms often developed lung diseases. In the weaving factories, humidity often reached within a degree or two of saturation point causing evaporation from the body to stop, which caused body temperatures to rise and resulted in workers experiencing giddiness and lassitude. They were also vulnerable to bronchitis. After working in stifling conditions for twelve hours, they stepped outside into the cool evening air with their bodies and clothes still damp.

The men and women who spent long hours in unhealthy working conditions to earn poor wages are today forgotten. By the 1960s, the industry had declined and the linen production equipment was obsolete. Some of the mills still stand but the linen equipment has been removed and is now exhibited in museums for visitors and students of history. Anonymous accounts of the memories and harsh experiences of mill workers are recorded.

http://www.lisburncity.gov.uk/irish-linen-centre-and-lisburn-museum/

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