A study of the Linen industry – the “fabric” of our culture

Monaghan Community Network organised a trip to explore the history of linen, on Thursday 14th February 2019 as part of the Peace IV funded Cultural Awareness Project. The first stop on the tour was Moygashel Linen Visitors’ Centre, on the outskirts of Dungannon in south Tyrone (on the site of a former linen mill) to reflect on the rich industrial heritage of the area. Moygashel was a mill town where mills have been in operation since 1795.  A group of Huguenot settlers (ancestors of the Webb family, the present owners of Moygashel Weavers) established an Irish linen weaving company there, weaving some of the finest linens in the world. It is said that Moygashel linen has a unique ingredient using the soft rainfall from the tributary streams on the Mourne Mountains to soften the flax. It was fascinating to think about the impact the little village of Moygashel had on the Irish textile history, how this quality product was respected and traded around the world, and how highly regarded linen still is worldwide.
Today, despite the demise of the industry, the entrepreneurial spirit is still alive, creating a vibrant and profitable commercial centre and much needed local employment.

Linen is a very important part of our history, north and south, and it had an elite status in the textile world. However, many of the workers who produced the flax and the linen could rarely afford to dress in the fabric they helped to produce. While linen is synonymous with elegance and comfort, it was also used in war times – it created tents and parachute webbing for soldiers, flying suits for pilots, covers for planes, and linen thread was used to sew equipment for military personnel, it provided the upholstery of early motor cars, grips for cricket bats, clothing and thread, and damask tableware for first-class passengers on the “Titanic”. The entire flax crop is used – the left-over linseeds, oil, straw and fibre are used in everything from linoleum, to soap to cattlefeed and paper.

The second part of the day trip was to the Irish Linen Museum in Lisburn. Again we learned how flax from our rural farms had once been the key to prosperity in Ulster before the Great War, and many of the participants could recall “flax holes” or dams on their family farms. This cottage industry flourished through the mid-nineteenth century. The demonstrations traced how the flax was harvested and prepared, spun, woven, “beetled”, bleached and sold was extremely valuable and important to understanding our ancestors and their lives. They also included working the looms, the use of “size”, goosewing, and tallow grease in the process, and the piano card pattern cutting machine.

The day provided great opportunities for shared learning and dialogue – most people had memories or anecdotes of flax growing and harvesting in their family heritage, and in rural north Monaghan were nicknames were used to distinguish different families of the same surname, some families today are still known by their connection to a “Hackler” – a worker who separated the coarse part of flax with a hackle; i.e. a flax-dresser . The museum displays also demonstrated our shared culture and traditions in relation to earning a living, household and wartime purchases, and an increased awareness and understanding of the lives of our ancestors and the part many played in the “fabric” of our history.

Spindle and ShuttleBy Mary Morton

Last night I darned a damask table cloth.
Back and forth, Warp and woof:
The cloth was old; a hundred years and more,
Had come and gone since, master of his loom,
Some skilful weaver set the hare and hounds
Careering through the woodland of its edge
In incandescent pattern, white on white.
It was my mother’s cloth, her mother’s too
(Some things wear better than their owners do)

And linen lasts: a stuff for shirts and shrouds
Since Egypt’s kings first built their gorgeous tombs
And wrapped their dead in linen, it may be
They held it symbol of a latent hope
Of immortality.

Back and forth, Warp and woof:
Wing of angel, Devil’s hoof.

The glinting needle with its fitful spark,
My Jack o’Lantern on the marsh’s dark,
Would pause and shine, would flash and flit along
Divining scene and symbol for a song.

A field of blossomed flax in North Tyrone
Its lean and sheen and shine, its small blue flower
As shy and secret as an Ulster maid
Who saves her smiles like shillings, unaware
Life pays no dividends on thrifty love

Darning, learning, Yarning, yearning, Spinning, weaving, Joying, grieving:

A black flax dam, a field of linen snow,
Linked opposites: the scar upon the soul
Of every Ulsterman. (The spindle turns
And turning winds a thread where clumsy splice
Or stubborn know will lie upon the spool
To mar the damask’s smoothness when the web
Is woven fast.)

While captive shuttles darting to and fro
Will weave, not hare and hounds, but shamrock sprays
To tempt nostalgic exiles. None may rest
Till day ends and the siren sets them free.
Even the children, sad as wilting flowers
Plucked in the bud, must give their days to toil,
Their nights to weariness and never know
How morning comes with laughter to a child.
But linen prospers and the linen lords
Build fine town mansions for their families
And plan a city hall whose splendid dome
Will soar above the long lean streets and look
Beyond them to the green encircling hills.

Back and forth, Warp and woof: Wing of angle, Devil’s hoof:

Young men see visions and old men dream dreams:
Their beacons lit on summits far away,
Their faith entangled in the baffling rope,
Good twined with evil, evil twined with good,
Strand upon strand with whiter strands for some;
The spinner and the weaver in the mill
Now earn a living and have time to live,
Children whose mothers were half-timers once
Untouchables in factory and school
May learn to play and even play to learn
And think of spindle as a word to spell.

Mill-girls have shed their shawl-cocoons and shine
Brighter than butterflies. With gleaming hair
And ankles neat in nylon each can look
Into her mirror with a practised smile
And see herself the reigning linen queen.
The great domed hall four-square in stubborn stone
With polished marble floors magnificent
As any Rajah’s palace has stood now
For nearly half a century. Strange how
The little laurel hedge that hems its lawns
Reveals we still are country-folk at heart
Deep-rooted in the fields our fathers tilled.

Back and forth, Warp and woof: Wing of angel, Devil’s hoof:
Back and forth, Warp and woof: Wing of angel, Devil’s hoof:

All times make time and all are good and ill;
Twin fibres twist to make the coiling rope
We label time.
And good was twined with ill
When spinning yarn and weaving linen were
Still country crafts. The old blind woman with
Her spinning-wheel beside the open door
Would spin and spin with finger-tips for eyes
Matching the spindle’s hunger to her own
Till each was satisfied; but she could feel
The warm sun on her face, the kindly wind
Lay gentle hands upon her faded hair,
The cottage weaver cramped and stiff from toil
That made a convict’s treadmill of his loom
Could run a mile around his one green field
To flex his muscles; and could pause awhile
To hear the blackbird’s song, or sing his own.

Back and forth, Warp and woof: Wing of angel, Devil’s hoof:

The hand-loom turns to lumber and the wheel
Becomes a thing to win a tourist’s glance
When far from field and bird the factories rise,
A myriad spindles and a maze of looms
Cradled within four wails. On every side
Thin streets of small brick houses spawn and sprawl
Though none could give its neighbour elbow-room.
Sleep flies each morning at the siren’s shout
And women hurry, shapeless in their shawls,
In multitudes made nameless, to the mill,
Some young, some old, and many great with child:
All wage slaves of the new industrial age,
All temple vestals of the linen god.
Some will put off their shoes from off their feet
And barefoot serve the spindles all day long,
Some will keep constant vigil where the looms
Like giant nightmare spiders pounce and crawl
With spider skill across the tethered web.