The History of Irish Linen: Part 1 - Climate, France, & Wool

The history of Irish Linen has been a 300+ year commitment to the production of the finest linen in the world. This prolonged period of craftsmanship has forged an inseparable global association of "linen" to Ireland and its people.

To this day, it remains the opposite of fast fashion - a rare display of generational mastery.

And while over the last hundred years, as the rest of the world has sought to cut corners and deliver textiles at the lowest possible cost, the Irish linen industry has persisted in producing material of uncompromised quality - reserving its place as the best linen in the world

This is the story of how that came to be.

 

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1700's - Climate, France, & Wool 

There are many tales of the first introduction of linen on the Emerald Isle, however the official Irish linen story begins at the start of the 18th century.

From the outset, a number of events took place that would set the stage for an explosive century for Irish linen.

 

Climate

First, across the country the soil and climate was well suited for flax cultivation. Ireland's moist atmosphere was also favorable for spinning, weaving, and bleaching (flax's strength improves when wet) and the abundance of rivers and bogs was important when water power was being used to drive machinery.

These favorable conditions had led to an already long tradition of domestic weaving of flax grown on the farm. When agricultural work was slack, farmers would weave linen cloth of threads spun by their wives, daughters, and servants. Any excess was sold by the family at the local market center.

 

Irish women spinning and weaving flax fibers to make linen

 

Overall, "linen production" in the Ireland was no more than a side occupation of farmers.  

Enter the French.

 

France

In 1685 the Edict of Nantes is revoked in France, which had previously guaranteed Huguenot (French Protestant) toleration. This led to a mass exodus to escape religious persecution, with many coming to join the Protestant population in Northern Ireland.

 

 

The Huguenots brought with them material wealth and the most efficient textile looms of the day. Deploying both in their new home, it was not long before linen production in Ireland increased significantly.

Between just 1685 and 1705, exported linen cloth in Ireland increased five times – to upwards of half a million yards.

 

Irish man seated at linen warp

 

Just as overseas trade was beginning to develop. 

 

Wool

The Irish focus on linen – as opposed to other textiles – began to widen simultaneously due to the British Wool Act of 1699. This prevented the export of wool from Ireland – effectively killing the local wool industry and forcing its manufacturers to convert to other textiles, namely linen.

The restrictions on the wool trade in Ireland was partly enacted by the British government in support of the Northern Irish (and predominately Protestant) linen industry. In a time of much persecution, linen was one of very few Irish products that was traded tariff-free to both England and the British colonies in the Americas.

 

 

Over the course of the 18th century, the reputation of Irish linen began to flourish. 

The Board of Trustees of the Linen Manufacturers was formed in 1711 to regulate the linen trade in Ireland and in just thirty years after its establishment, linen production had increased seven times.

By the end of the 18th century, linen accounted for half of Ireland's total exports - growing from 1,300,000 yards of linen cloth in 1712, to 46,000,000 yards in 1796 - an increase of thirty-four times.

Ireland had become the largest linen production region in the world by far. 

 

Graph of Irish Linen Production 1712-1796

 

Essentially all forces were behind its expansion:

  • Ireland's climate was well suited for linen manufacture
  • Farmers could carry on spinning and weaving as side occupations at low cost
  • Advances in linen weaving technology made the laborious weaving process more efficient
  • Ireland was close to England and Holland, the two largest distribution centers of the day 
  • Irish linen was traded tariff-free to England and the British colonies in the Americas 

 

Many historians cite the success of the linen industry as the largest driving factor behind the sharp increase in population experienced over the century.

 

Graph of Irish Population 1718-1791

 

 

 

Unfortunately, while linen production would continue to increase, several internal and external factors would arise to stunt the growth of the nation over the century to come. 

 


 

In the next part, we will enter the industrial 19th century and touch on several events that have come to define Ireland's history. 

 

Click here to read Part 2: Revolution, Belfast, & Cotton