Saturday, 23 June 2018

Belfast Linen

I was  having an Instagram conversation about the scarcity of linen to be found in Ireland and that same day I went to the Titanic Experience  in Belfast. Little did I know the two events would be linked, and supported by another walk through the Ulster Museum....
Titanic Belfast Experience
In 1711 a Linen Board was established in Ulster to direct the development of the linen industry and new methods and better seeds were imported by the French Huguenots who settled in the north of Ireland at the end of the 17th century. Flax was grown in the countryside alongside food crops.

Flax seeds through to brown and bleached linen
Flax seeds were sown in spring and harvested around 100 days later. The mature flax was pulled from the ground rather than cut, so the extra length could be obtained. It then underwent a retting process which used moisture and bacteria to eat away the hard woody stem so that the inside fibres could be removed easily. Scutching then removed the outer skin of the flax, leaving only the silky inner fibres. These were combed over pins, known as roughing, and then hackling gave the flax a more thorough combing to remove superfluous organic matter.

Growing flax and turning into linen cloth was a long and laborious process with many stages. Traditionally women and children prepared the flax and spun the fibres into thread at home on spinning wheels whilst men then wove the thread into linen cloth on hand looms.

Working from home
Image from Titanic Belfast
The brown linen was taken to markets to be sold for bleaching and finishing then usually exported, mainly to England where it was prized for its fine quality.

Flax Mill c.1840
Image: Titanic Belfast

In the early 1840's linen cloth production moved from a home-based occupation in the country to a large scale factory-based one in the city. The different processes linen had to undergo before being made into cloth meant there were a series of hierarchical jobs within the mills accompanied by differing standards of working conditions and pay.

Mill production
Image: Titanic Belfast
Mill Production
Image: Titanic Belfast
During the 19th century people flocked to Belfast to work in the new linen mills and by 1900 Belfast was producing and exporting more linen than anywhere else in the world. There were over 65,000 mill workers at the turn of the century, many employed in Belfast, and around 900,000 flax spinning spindles in Belfast alone in 1900. Mill workers worked 6 days a week from 6.30am to 6pm for very low wages, many of whom were women and children who were often known as "half-timers" because they attended school as well. Dust inhaled when preparing the flax could trigger disease, and the hot humid conditions necessary for the spinning and weaving of linen caused chest infections. Working barefoot in water in the spinning rooms often led to painful foot conditions.

Mill Production
Image: Titanic Belfast
Embroiderers were often lowly paid but their working conditions were healthier, and they were considered socially superior.

Examples of fine linen embroidery at the Ulster Museum
The Titanic needed huge quantities of linen for her maiden voyage and these were all made in Belfast. The First Class passengers had damask linen tablecloths and napkins, patterned with the White Star emblem. Linens were also used for all the bedding as well as in the kitchens and dining room.  The Titanic carried thousands of aprons and tablecloths and over 10,000 kitchen cloths, as well as 18,000 bed sheets and 45,000 table napkins! There were no facilities on board to wash anything, so there were separate stores for clean and dirty linens, and a drying room for wet linen so they did not become mouldy on the voyage.

The information above came from the Titanic Belfast Experience Museum. More information about the history of Irish linen can be found here

Walking around the Ulster Museum I came across an enormous hand-woven contemporary Irish linen artwork - The Game of Thrones Tapestry that opened at the museum in July 2017. 

Game of Thrones Tapestry, Ulster Museum
Now, I have not seen Game of Thrones, but I thoroughly enjoyed walking around this incredible tapestry which snaked back and forth across walls within the exhibition space. It is now 66 metres long, and consists of six 11m panels, one for each of the six series currently produced. By the time it is finished it will be longer than its inspiration, the Bayeux Tapestry which measures 77m. Here are some images of some of the series - are you a fan and can you recognise any of the scenes??

The Night is Dark and full of terrors....
Have you been paying attention...?
Exquisite weaving and embroidery
The End....for now......
Read more about this amazing tapestry and how it has reignited the awareness of Irish Linen and promoted Irish tourism here

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