The History of Irish Linen: Part 2 - Revolution, Belfast, & Cotton
This is Part 2 of a multipart series that delves into the history of Irish Linen and how it came to be the most famous linen material in the world.
For those who have missed Part 1, it can be found here
1800's - Revolution, Belfast, & Cotton
Looking forward from the 1700's, both Ireland and its linen industry were on the rise. Linen was one of two or three commodities driving the rapid expansion in population and the growth of the nation. Yet, despite its strong momentum, the 19th century was a turbulent one for the country.
Behind the scenes the Industrial Revolution was emerging, starting with the invention of the cotton spinning machine at the end of the 18th century. Shortly following, cotton manufacturing in Northern Ireland had gone from virtually nonexistent to becoming a fully established industry.
Unfortunately, the brittleness of flax fibers had made it impossible for flax to be spun using the same machine – a different process would need to be invented for linen. While this problem continued to inspire inventors, a breakthrough in mechanized flax spinning would not come for several decades.
In the meantime, the two rival industries competed for the same labor force and supply of capital. However, as it stood, cotton was easier and cheaper to manufacture and the vast increase in cotton production brought on by new technologies had led to higher wages for its workers as well.
Linen was beginning to lose a significant portion of its trade to cotton – seen in the number of textile looms dedicated to each fabric in Belfast.
Number of Textile Looms in Belfast
In 1825, a machine capable of spinning flax yarn was developed and soon after, the first steam-powered flax spinning mill was built in Belfast. It was discovered that if flax fibers were first ran through hot water, their strength and pliability would improve, and reduce their breakage in the machine.
From the 1830's onward, Ireland's cotton industry came under strong competition from the power looms in Great Britain. This had a similar effect to the British Wool Act of the previous century – externally influencing Ireland to specialize in linen once again.
Nevertheless, the cotton trade had laid the industrial foundation for what would soon become known as Linenopolis.
The Building of Belfast
In the face of negative economic forces, it did not take long for Belfast to convert from a cotton manufacturing center to the largest linen production region in the world.
Already by the late 1820's several wet spinning mills had been built in Belfast. By 1850 there were 62 mills in the region, employing 19,000 workers, and by 1871 there were 78 mills with a workforce of 43,000. Belfast itself was producing over half the total linen output of the country and was home to a third of the flax spinning mills in Ireland.
The growth experienced over this time had inspired thousands to flock from the surrounding countrysides to Belfast. Between 1831 and 1841, when steam spinning was first being introduced, Belfast's population grew from 48,224 to 75,308. In 1841, one-fifth of the working population was employed in textile manufacturing alone. In the next thirty years (1841-1871), Belfast more than doubled in size and doubled again in the thirty years following (1871-1901). By the end of the century, Belfast had surpassed Dublin in terms of population size, largely due to the success of its linen industry.
Belfast was officially the linen capital of the world and had earned itself the nickname of Linenopolis.
Unfortunately, while linen production continued to increase and the global reputation of Irish linen continued to flourish, the nation as a whole did not share in the same success.
Stresses on Ireland
In terms of the linen industry, the various British foreign wars of the 1800's had the greatest effects on production, both positive and negative. Wars would result in a similar pattern of creating high demand for linen at the start, followed by deep depressions after.
The Irish linen industry was heavily reliant on the demand of English merchants – at times, upwards of 85% of Irish linen was being shipped to England.
Wars would also create disruptions in the trade of flax from Belgium and flax seed from the United States – cutting supplies short and halting progress in Ireland.
The 1840's saw the devastation of the Irish rural population with severe and repeated failures of the potato crop.
Northern Ireland's thriving linen industry gave the people of the north a buffer from the worst of the famine – allowing them to purchase food with their income. The rest of the country, however, was highly focused on agriculture and could not help but be ravaged by the loss of their farms and livelihoods.
According to Irish records, less than 20% of the population in the north took advantage of the government’s offer of free food, whereas in some of the more agricultural counties, as much as 100% of the population had requested assistance.
The prolonged duration of the famine ultimately resulted in an unparalleled level of migration from the country.
The potato famine, improvements in production efficiencies, and various war-induced depressions, together with Ireland's exploding population, had created the conditions for mass emigration.
The first wave came largely from the linen-producing north, due to the industrial advancements in the early part of the century. Even with the high global demand for linen, machinery had made the industry much less labor intensive – limiting opportunities for industrial employment.
This trend can be seen in U.S. immigration records that show pre-famine immigrants from Ireland were predominately male, while over the famine years and following, entire families were immigrating to the country. Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish constituted over one-third of all immigrants to the United States. In the 1840's (the famine years), they comprised nearly half of all immigrants to the U.S.
The trend of emigration would continue for several decades following the famine and Ireland's population has still to this day never recovered to pre-famine levels.
"Ireland has had only one export, and that's been people." —John F. Kennedy
This large-scale migration of Irish peoples has had a profound effect on the history of Ireland. So much so that Irish historians have continually questioned why the country failed to continue the dramatic growth it had experienced in the 1700's into the new century.
It seems as though Ireland's growth was simply unsustainable given the forces exerted on it.
For instance, the 46 million yards of linen cloth that was being produced at the end of the 18th century was done so entirely by hand. The "linen industry" was one that had partly employed a large portion of the country – growing flax on their farm and weaving it in their off time. However, the Industrial Revolution had now centralized linen production in cities and greatly reduced the number of workers necessary for large-scale output. Tie that together with the agriculturally impactful potato famine, and there was no part of Irish common life that was not negatively impacted over some duration of the century.
That said, the linen industry had been one of the few industries that enjoyed great success throughout the 1800's. The shift from the handloom to mechanical weaving had led to an explosion in linen production, so much so, linen products were becoming synonymous with Ireland around the world.
The 19th century was one of great transformation for Ireland, as well as its linen industry. For Ireland, it was largely characterized by the adverse effects of the Irish Potato Famine which had sliced its population nearly in half. On the other hand, for linen, the Industrial Revolution had unleased production and built the city of Belfast from a small coastal town into an industrial powerhouse.
In the next part, we will enter the 20th century. For Irish linen, the next century would be one of adaptation to the rise of new and innovative man-made fibers. As for the nation, it would again reach high highs and low lows.
Click here to read Part 3: Decline, Integration, & Man-Made Fibers