Tea cloth made with Irish Linen

Tea time with an Irish linen napkin.

By sight, it’s hard to tell what differentiates “Irish” linen from any other common cloth. By touch, it immediately becomes distinct, but how is hard to explain. So I tracked down one of a handful of remaining Irish linen weavers to spell out what makes Irish linen what it is, and how to tell it from imposters.

A brief background: Irish linen production started in the 17th century, when the Irish textile industry became the sole economic trade in many parts of Ireland. In the 18th century, every town or village in Northern Ireland had a mill or factory for making Irish Linen. But by the end of the 20th century, the industry had shrunk to ten companies, and there are only 8 mills left today.

Marion Baur is the owner and chief weaver at Flax Mill in Derrylane, Ireland. She’s been weaving Irish linen for over two decades, and has watched the industry transform. Over email, Marion helped me wrap my head around it.

Marion Baur at Flax Mill in Ireland. (Image by flaxmill-textiles.com)

Marion Baur weaves Irish Linen at her loom at the Flax Mill. (Image by flaxmill-textiles.com)

KM: First off, what is “Irish” Linen?

MB: The old definition used to be that in order to call a fabric Irish Linen it had to be at least woven and finished in Ireland. In recent years they have tried to change that and water it down to “at least finished here…” I don’t accept that at all. Any fabric which is of woven nature should be called after the country it is woven in, I would never call linen which is woven in China and then bleached and dyed here Irish linen. But that is done often now.

KM: What about the production? Compared to other linens, it has such a unique texture.

MB: The climate [in Ireland] suits the production of linen, from growing flax, the raw material, to spinning the yarn and especially the weaving of linen, which favors high air humidity. The experience of making linen direct in Ireland is huge, too. I have learned more from “old hands” at linen making than any book in the world could teach you. The designs – especially the colors we use – are influenced by the beautiful landscape. Try to dye a fabric in the color of heather, to give just one example: Nobody in the world will get it as close and as nice to the real thing as the Irish who have 60% of the country covered with bogs where the heather is the main plant. Last, the unique quality of water we use for washing the yarn, the woven fabric, for dyeing, etc. The water here is softer than anywhere in Europe and as a lot of it comes out of the bogs, has certain ingredients which the linen favors.

Our own mill also produces a small proportion of the  linen from our own raw material, we grow the flax and get it spun here. That – a real rarity now- type of cloth is probably one of the most sought after items on these islands now.

Linen loom. (Image courtesy of Alice Bernardo)

Mechanical linen loom. (Image courtesy of Alice Bernardo)

KM: How did you get started with Irish linen? Was it in the family?

MB: There is an old textile tradition in my family, my father’s father and so on, but I don’t want to “thrive” on that.

I was trained in Germany where I was born and – I suppose like any trainee-weaver in the world – learned about the huge industry and the very high quality of the Irish fabric.  The mill I was trained in and worked for in Germany produced cotton, wool and synthetic fabrics but no linen, which, I suppose, increased my curiosity. Twenty-four years ago I bought Flax Mill here in county Derry and have been making linen since. I am very fond of the fabric, it’s different from anything else I’ve woven, hard to weave though.

KM: Why is linen so hard to weave?

MB: Being a bast-fibre it hasn’t got the flexibility of wool or the softness of cotton. It’s stubborn, needs exactly the right air-humidity and temperature (not warm in the weaving shed), a very high tension on the warp. When weaving wool you get away with changing humidity etc., linen won’t let you make any mistake at all.

Mechanical linen loom. (Image by Alice Bernardo)

Detail of working on the linen loom. (Image by Alice Bernardo)

KM: What kind of training did you receive to become a genuine Irish linen producer?

MB: Like any other trade you have to do apprenticeship – normally three years – after which you can do specialised further training like for damasque weaving etc. Some people do textile science at university as opposed to apprenticeship. I find they often lack practical experience. I have trained several weavers here at the mill in recent years.

Once you finish apprenticeship or uni-course you may be qualified, but to really master the trade I would say you need at least another 5 or so years of practical work. I have been weaving for over two decades now and still would not class myself as perfect or at the end of learning.

KM: You’ve been weaving a long time now. How have you seen the Irish linen industry change over the years?

MB: Like many other good textiles, the industry has lost a lot of its ground to the cheap and nasty stuff, often made under terrible conditions for the textile workers. Especially cheap cotton from India and recently China has done a lot of damage, and our government’s done nothing to help or protect the linen industry.

But I’m involved in linen weaving because weaving is my livelihood and living in Ireland, linen is one of the main products here for a weaver – despite all the problems the now-small industry has. The industry is small compared to the past. But we are alive and kicking. The growing trend towards using healthier and longer lasting textiles suits linen well, it is the strongest and most lasting, and the healthiest (zero static loading) fabric we can make.

Linen Guild advertisement, 1957.  (Image courtesy of the Irish Linen Guild)

Irish Linen Guild advertisement, 1957. (Image courtesy of the Irish Linen Guild)

KM: Are there efforts being made to bring the industry back?

MB: There are no real efforts made by the authorities to bring it back in a bigger way. But the days of linen being known as little white table runners with bits of lace and embroidered shamrocks on them are long over. We make shirting, suiting, very trendy table-ware, upholstery fabrics….the lot.  Being “written off” by the powers to be has not just done harm. It has also made us more stubborn and determined to keep what’s left. A hard craft to keep going it is – those of us who are still at it have taken on that challenge.

I suppose, if you produce decent quality for a long time, people will want your product.

Linen weaving. (Image courtesy of kathleencurtiswIlson.com)

Irish linen loom in action. (Image courtesy of kathleencurtiswIlson.com)


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  1. Posted February 17, 2013 at 11:57 PM | Permalink

    Great interview. Are there any recommended sources for purchasing true Irish linen by the yard or bolt? Like Ms. Bauer, I'm tired of the inferior products coming out of China, etc. but it's so hard to trust what you find on the internet.

  2. Cass
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:14 AM | Permalink

    Hi Karen. The people at the Irish Linen Company were very nice, and out of several companies I corresponded with, they were the only ones able to put me in touch with someone in Ireland who weaves some of their cloth. So I know at least some, if not all, of their linens are genuine. Try them to start. Otherwise, if you find an Irish linen you really love, I would reach out directly to the person who's selling it and ask them up front about where they get their fabric, and if it's fully made in Ireland. In my own research, I found that many places boasting luxurious Irish Linen couldn't verify that all their linens were 100% made in Ireland. Good luck!

  3. Joy
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 7:49 AM | Permalink

    We share your concerns too Karen, what you could do is to look out for the Irish Linen Guild logo, that is the mark of true Irish linen.

  4. Posted February 18, 2013 at 11:05 PM | Permalink

    Thank you both. The Irish linen guild website led me to a couple US suppliers.

  5. Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:16 AM | Permalink

    Hello, I thought my company should leave a comment just to help promote the cause. Fergusons Irish Linen is ran by the Linen guilds president David Neilly and has been weaving Linen in Ireland from 1854 to this very day (looms are weaving in the room next to me).

    For people such as Karen above or anyone else interested in purchasing or gathering some information on Irish Linen. We sell true Irish Linen by the metre if you wish to visit our site and would be happy to answer any questions if you want to send me an email.

    Everyone at Thomas Ferguson Irish Linen has a passion about what we do, and we are proud of our heritage. We have never lost sight of our main strengths which are our craftsmanship, and our culture for quality, which have been developed over generations. The combination of fine raw materials, skilled weavers, advanced loom technology and careful finishing has brought Thomas Ferguson a reputation, and a credibility, of which we are proud. To this day it stands for the best in linen damask and indeed Irish Linen,

    For those interested we also have a German site


  6. follow up
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 1:18 AM | Permalink

    My email

    Joshneilly (at) Franklinsgroup.net

    UK web site

  7. Cass
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 1:10 AM | Permalink

    Also Karen, Marion suggested http://linenblue.com/ – they sell genuine 100% Irish Linen, Marion's and Thomas Fergusons among them.

  8. Patrick
    Posted February 20, 2013 at 6:48 AM | Permalink

    When I was a young kid, between 3 and 4 every afternoon, I sat in the parlor of my best friend's home while his mom poured us a cup of tea. She was from Dublin and wouldn't be caught dead using anything other than Irish linen. Fast forward a couple of dozen years and I'm a missionary in Africa staying in a hostel run by an Irish nun. Her family used to run a 300 year-old hotel in Donegal. The world outside was going to the dogs, but at her table, we dined on Irish linen!

  9. Norma Ball
    Posted July 9, 2013 at 5:04 AM | Permalink

    We are looking for someone to hand weave a "seamless" robe for an annual event we hold in December. We realize this will be expensive and realize it will take a master weaver. I was told from a lady in western US that she knew of someone in Italy that might help us but cannot remember their name! Wondering if you have any connections or ideas to help us. Thanks.


  10. Marcia
    Posted September 10, 2013 at 10:20 AM | Permalink

    I bought a large end-of-bolt piece of fabric and was told it's Irish linen. I love linen!! There are lots and lots of fabric pieces at this particular antique shop in northern Minnesota – – – if someone is interested. It's in Crosslake, MN.

  11. catherine payne
    Posted December 20, 2013 at 1:37 PM | Permalink

    It was lovely reading about Irish l grew up in Ireland, and remember my grandmother bringing out the best linen table cloth for guests coming to visit her, I also remember my mum taking the linen to be dry cleaned. I would like to know why it had to be dry cleaned. I am pleased to hear someone has kept the trade going. Has anyone kept the waterford glass trade skills going. When next in Ireland I will try to make it to the Irish made goods. Thank youinen, it is also sad to see Irish linen being market as Irish linen and made in china.As a child growing up in Ireland I can always remember my mum taking the Irish bed linen been taken to the drycleaners to be cleaned, not sure why mum did it, she said if you washed it would shrink? Is this true and why. I love good quality white bed linen, I use to be able to buy Actil made in Australia now the only place it is made is in china. I will look at the recommended places you have mentioned.

  12. Tony Kellett
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 12:43 AM | Permalink

    This along shot on my part,but could you tell me anything about the called Kellett that supplied/made or sold Irish Linen in Dublin during the early 20th Century? Thanking you in anticipation.

  13. Posted January 24, 2014 at 1:58 AM | Permalink

    Hi Catherine,

    This is what our Belgian linen supplier recommended: "We always suggest washing our fabrics in soap and water, and putting them in a dryer at low temperatures for a short time. Hand washing is the best choice, since any time spinning fabrics in a machine will be part of the 'wear' of the fabrics. But we do suggest a short time in the dryer even for people who hang their laundry, since the heat will constrict fibers and actually help strengthen the weave – and the dryer will impart a softness that you won't get with line drying. Dry cleaning uses chemicals, which have a drying effect on the fibers, making them brittle over time and affecting their tensile strength."

    Hope that helps!

  14. Posted February 8, 2014 at 4:19 AM | Permalink

    Hi Tony,

    This is what I heard back from Hermann Glaser-Baur of Flax Mill linen producer in Derrylane, Ireland:

    “I don't know much about Kellett, but I can tell you for sure they were merchants, not manufacturers. As far as we are aware, there were never any linen manufacturers in Dublin. Linen making was always confined to the North – and still is in a much smaller way now. The South of Ireland wasn't as industrialized and so that area kept to wool production."

    Hope that helps!

  15. Posted February 8, 2014 at 4:21 AM | Permalink

    Hi Catherine,

    This is what I heard back from Hermann Glaser-Baur of the linen producer Flax Mill in Derrylane, Ireland:

    "Linen doesn't need dry cleaning at all, it is NOT sensitive towards washing. If it is high-quality, you can boil linen without doing it any harm (just make sure to keep dark colors out). A normal wash of around 60 degrees will not harm it. Good linen has been shrunk in the finishing process, it should have zero shrinkage, or very little. Don't use any fabric-softeners. They are bad for any fabric and bad for your body.”

    Hope this helps!

  16. Jan Beuck
    Posted October 9, 2014 at 12:51 PM | Permalink

    I have 3 pieces of linen, 36 inchesx10 yards. Each has a paper label with a picture of a castle and the words Belfast Mills. Label is primarily green and white. They are wrapped on each end with orange, green and white ribbon. There is also a paper tape that is green and ivory that is folded through the entire piece. Can you give me any info on it?

  17. Tara Larnach
    Posted April 3, 2015 at 8:16 PM | Permalink

    Dear Catherine,
    I agree this is a lovely post.
    I'm in Australia( I'm not sure if you also are but if so I may be able to help you) I make pure linen bed sheets as well other linen home wares, I sell them online.
    My website is currently being upgraded so you cant see much for the next week or two.
    I bring the linen in from Lithuania woven in a small and old mill. I chose this mill the because the flax is grown and processed in either France or Belgium, its small the linen is good quality and affordable. (i don't want anything to do with mass produced cheap "knock offs") because it's all used in a little holiday rental that is a historiacal heritage listed sandstone cottage called Simpson Cottage just outside of Sydney. Believe it or not a lot of the big mills import flax threads from China other places then sell "European linen".
    Next year I'm planning on heading over to Europe to visit the weaving mill as well as the spinning and processing mills and flax growers.
    All my products are traceable and made in Australia by me.
    If you're interested in buying some bed linen please let me know.

  18. kaufmannmerc
    Posted May 28, 2015 at 2:23 PM | Permalink

    Hi Jan,

    I'm sorry, we can't provide info on particular fabrics, especially vintage.
    Good luck in your search and let us know if you learn anything interesting…

  19. Erin
    Posted July 29, 2015 at 11:25 AM | Permalink

    Hi, my Mother just recently gave me a beautiful piece of Irish linen (she said it is a dish towel) never been used but stored awkwardly and now has several stains. It is printed (silkscreen?) with a traditional verse (the wren, the wren the king of all birds), a picture and has across the bottom "Kilkenny Design Workshops made in the Republic of Ireland. Because of the design what would you advise as the best way to clean it? I would love to display it!

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