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.
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.
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.
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.
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.