A visit to the Irish Linen Centre in Lisburn

Demonstrates how linen has been made and used since Egyptian times

The Irish Linen Centre opened in 1994 in a bright modern extension to Lisburn’s Market House, attached to Lisburn Museum. Its permanent exhibition, ‘From Flax to Fabric’, shows how linen has been made and used since Egyptian times.

Made from the stems of flax, a blue-flowered plant, linen has long been a high-status cloth. The Pharoahs’ mummies were wrapped in it, and a piece from the tomb of Tutankamun, dating from 1500BC, is on display.

Flax was grown in Ireland from at least the twelfth century, and there is a model of an Irish chieftain wearing a linen shirt or léine. Until the seventeenth century, Ireland exported linen yarn to England.

Linen production was literally a cottage industry. Women spun—hence the term ‘spinster’—while men wove and children wound thread onto bobbins. Weavers’ cottages had high ceilings to accommodate their looms.

Gallery assistant Emma Wilson demonstrates spinning. She explains: ‘The process uses fibres inside the flax stem. The fibres are between the stem and the woody core. They go right down to the root, so flax is pulled up, not cut.’

The flax is first soaked, then broken down or ‘scutched’ to get the fibres out. Next, the fibres are combed or ‘hackled’, which transforms them into soft shining swathes like blonde hair, hence the term ‘flaxen hair’. Hackling produces a lot of dust, and many mill hacklers died young.

Next the fibres are spun on a spinning wheel. Wilson says: ‘Experienced spinners can spin consistent yarn of whatever width the weaver wants—fine for a hanky or coarse for tea cloths.’

Linen is naturally oatmeal in colour, so it was soaked in various substances to bleach it, then spread out on grass ‘bleach greens’ in long strips.

Quakers from England and Huguenots from France helped develop Ireland’s linen industry. After Louis XIV revoked the rights of French Protestants in 1685, many Huguenots fled their homes. Louis also seized William of Orange’s principality in southeastern France.

After William secured victory in Ireland, he settled Huguenot refugees there, and across the Atlantic in Virginia. A very influential Huguenot was Louis Crommelin, who came to Lisburn in 1698 with a colony of Huguenot weavers. He was appointed overseer of the Royal Linen Manufacture of Ireland, and established weaving premises and a bleach yard.

At the exhibition, weavers also demonstrate nineteenth century cambric and jacquard damask looms. The jacquard system involves using thousands of punched cards to weave figured patterns, such as floral designs and family crests. Damask is named after the patterned silk woven in China and exported along the silk road to Damascus.

High quality linen garments and household linens are displayed in a darkened room. These were prized by royals and aristocrats, and ‘linen barons’ grew rich on the proceeds.

For those who produced the linen by hackling, spinning, weaving and embroidering, life was hard, and industrialisation only made things worse. The exhibition ends with a descent by lift into the gloomy hellish world of the great factories in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Wet-spinners spent their days ankle deep in water. Children often worked and went to school on alternate days. These days are still a living memory for many families.

The Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum, Market Square, Lisburn, is open Monday to Saturday, 9.30am and 5pm. Admission is free. Tel +44(0) 28 9266 3377

Text and photographs by Liz Curtis. © Liz Curtis 2004.