Northern Ireland's Textile Industry

An overview of the textile and fashion industries in Northern Ireland.

Linen

Linen was the focus for the Industrial Revolution in the north of Ireland, with engineering, trade and infrastructure developed around the requirements of the industry. In the 20th Century, linen played a significant role in both world wars, since rope, net, twine, hosepipes, sailcloth, canvas, blackout sheets, tents and aeroplane wing sealants were made from Irish Linen. Many of these products were replaced by synthetic fibres after the second world war.

Ireland remains a major linen producer, manufacturing 10% of the European Union’s linen yarn and exporting on average 30 million metres of fabric per annum. In Northern Ireland, the Industrial Development Board urged the diversification of linen production and its greater incorporation into fashionwear. New machinery and investment helped Irish linen producers to obtain a share of the market previously dominated by Italian textile firms. Around 85% of total production is exported, the most important markets being the US, for fashion labels such as Donna Karen, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, and Great Britain, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Australia and Asia. Recently, Lycra has been added to the traditional linen mix to reduce creasing.

Linen is still spun at William Ross and Company behind Clonard Monastery. Unfortunately, Herdmans of Sion Mills, the last wet spinning mill in Ireland, closed its production in February 2004 due to global competition. The company hopes to maintain a small dye-house operation. Ulster Weavers and Baird McNutt are the most successful and high tech manufacturing companies in Northern Ireland.

Costume and Heritage

Three trends that emerge from the history of costume in Ireland in the last 2000 years are the production of weatherproof wools, the love of fine linen, and a fondness for embellished, brightly coloured materials.

Well known items of clothing include the woollen brat, a large voluminous, enveloping weatherproof wrap, which dates back to pre-Christian times and lasted until the seventeenth century, and the Hibernian Cloak, a development of the ‘brat’ into a mantle shape. This was largely replaced by the Ulster, a caped travelling coat, originally made and sold by McGee and Company of Belfast from 1866 onwards. Finally, the Aran Jumper, a creation of the twentieth century.

The use of embroidery, lace and crochet in Irish clothing became popular in the late nineteenth century. Small industries were set up by individuals, charitable organisations and convents to provide employment for women, vital to the survival of whole families, especially during the famine. Limerick lace (tambour or needlerun embroidery on machine manufactured net) and Carrickmacross (appliqued cambric on machine net with needlepoint filling stitches) were the most popular trimmings. Crochet garments were known as Point d’Irlande.

The addition of customized craft in dress remains one of Ireland’s significant contributions to the fashion world.

The Fashion Industry

Ireland’s domestic market is not large enough to sustain a fashion industry in its own right, and therefore relies heavily on the export and tourist trade. Irish fashion is very Dublin-focused, although Belfast is becoming an important regional centre. The UK is still the biggest export market for Irish fashion.

In the 1950s, Dublin was a centre for Couture, with lavish fashion shows taking place in the city. In the 1960s, Irish fashion became more outward looking, and a designedly ‘Irish image’ was employed as a marketing ploy. Classic Irish couture, particularly evening wear, became a genre of its own.

However, in the late 1960s and early 70s, higher wage costs and the reduced demand for quality, expensive clothing alongside the rise of teenage fashion, forced many Irish couturiers to cease trading. Then, in the 1970s, the violence in Northern Ireland led to the closure of many old established businesses and department stores, the driving force for local fashion.

The 1980s witnessed a return to natural fibres and an upsurge in popularity of knitwear, successfully incorporated modern production technology while maintaining a continuously thriving home industry. Northern Ireland also employs a large number of people in the cut, make and trim factory trade. Fine wool and Irish tweeds are particularly desired in the world market. These trends proved highly beneficial for Irish fashion, and the textiles industry achieved a revival. However, without private or governmental backing, individual designers did not benefit financially.

The Northern Ireland Textiles and Apparel Association

The Northern Ireland Textiles and Apparel Association is the representative body of the textile and clothing industry in Northern Ireland. The sector employs in the region of 17,500 people, and contributes over £940m to the economy. This represents around 15% of all manufacturing turnover in Northern Ireland.

Employment in the textile and clothing sector has been badly hit in recent years, with firms struggling under high street pricing pressure and competition from overseas countries.

NITA acts as the main vehicle for communication and promotion, both within the sector, and to external bodies such as government agencies, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the media. It offers practical assistance on issues including employment legislation, tax, and health and safety. It networks outside Northern Ireland as part of the British Apparel and Textiles Confederation, and also collaborates with the Irish Clothing and Textiles Alliance. NITA co-produces the journal Cutting Edge.

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