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A Little History Of Irish Linen

Francis M Irish LinenA lovely article by Dr Marion McGarry on this history of Irish Linen, and so nice to see some of our photographs included in it. Link here 

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"In the past the production of linen was of major importance to rural communities in Ireland. Most farmers were involved with the trade (be it through growing flax and spinning it) and the rural built environment towns is still marked by defunct mills and linen halls. The logo for the Northern Irish Assembly is made of flax flowers which signifies the importance that linen production had in Ulster. In other regions throughout the country (notably Cork) linen was an important part of the rural economy. In modern times, the introduction of imported, cheaper cotton has seen the demise of the popularity of Irish linen, which today is produced on a lesser scale for luxury markets.

Linen is a natural fabric produced from the flax plant, which has distinctive blue flowers. From prehistory people produced the cloth domestically in Ireland and Irish linen was highly regarded. In the second half of the 18th century, factory production grew and by the 19th, power-driven machinery had become the norm for linen production in Ireland. Farmers supplied the raw or semi processed material to the mills yet many continued to process and weave the product in the traditional way, producing linen cloth as part of a cottage industry. 

Growing flax for the linen industry or weaving linen supplemented many an Irish family’s incomes from farming. All the family were involved in the production. Apart from their farming duties, the women and younger children spun the yarn while the men and older sons harvested the flax or worked on their weaving looms (spinning was seen as women’s work and weaving was done by men). Most local trade was carried on by cottage industries, some with up to four looms in their homes. Traditionally, the bulk of the processing work was done on the farm. The rotted stem of the flax was beaten with a wooden mallet, then boiled before being rinsed and spun into a coarse yarn and woven into cloth.

Irish linen is renowned for its superior quality. It is a cloth with a complex production process, that is delicately woven and intricately designed. The skills which were handed down over generations by Irish spinners and weavers led to a strength and fineness of the yarns and woven cloth. Irish ‘damask’ is woven from pure flax yarns in a way that shows up delicate patterns through the white cloth. Popular designs included chrysanthemum, shamrock and Celtic patterns. Although much of this was exported for the overseas market, some linen was reserved in Ireland for special occasions such as Station Masses and wakes.

In the twentieth century mass-produced cotton led to the demise of the vast linen industry in Ireland, the production of linen persisted in some parts of Ireland on this same scale into the mid twentieth century.  Irish flax production and linen spinning is no longer undertaken on the scale it was in the past. Some Irish linen continues to be mass produced to a high standard today.

Tracing your ancestors? Information on the history of linen is today helping those undertaking research on their Irish ancestors who may have been involved in the industry.  In 1796 the Irish Linen Board published a list of nearly 60,000 people involved in the trade.  The list shows that spinning wheels and looms were awarded to homes based on the number of acres’ the farmers had planted with flax. The list includes the names and parishes of the farmers. The ‘Flax Growers List, 1796’ is available on-line and is essential reading for those who want to find out more about their Irish ancestors." 

Link: https://drmarionmcgarry.weebly.com/irish-heritage-and-identity-blog#

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