The History of Irish Linen: Part 3 - Decline, Integration, & Man-Made Fibers

This is Part 3 and the final installment of a multipart series that covers the history of Irish Linen and how it came to be the most famous linen in the world.

For those who have missed Part 1 and Part 2, we would encourage you to read those first. 


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1900s - Decline, Integration, & Man-Made Fibers

In his book The Rise of the Irish Linen Industry (1915), Conrad Gill charts the expansion of the Irish linen industry from the 18th to the early 20th century and concludes with the following optimistic statement in regard to its future:

At the present time there is great activity in invention, research, and organization; and it is reasonable to expect that new methods, devised in a period of stress, will lead, as they did a hundred years ago, to a fresh era of development and prosperity.


As history shows, this could not have been more wrong. But who could blame him...  



Entering the 1900's, the linen industry in Ireland was at its zenith. In the year 1903, enough linen was woven in Ireland to wrap a six-foot wide strip around the earth. A few years later, the Titanic had commissioned 40,000 Ulster linen napkins to be made for her maiden voyage. The industrial revolution had brought about new and better ways to produce linen and its success had greatly increased the demand for workers. In the thirty-five years between 1891-1926, one in every three working women in Belfast was directly employed in the linen industry. By 1915, over 75,000 people were working in the industry and Northern Ireland had become the largest linen-producing region in the world. 


Irish linen looms


However, the good times were not to last. By the middle of the century, a decline had set in. The linen industry had come under growing pressure from the rise of low-cost cotton production, while at the same time man-made textiles were emerging in other parts of the world. Attempts by the Irish government to restructure the linen industry were unsuccessful, and its decline continued to gain pace. In 1950, the linen industry was made up of over 400 manufacturing plants each completing various stages of the linen making process; yet by 1970 the number of plants, linen production as a whole, and employment in the industry had declined by one half. Put concretely, employment in linen production, which stood at 87,000 in 1924, had fallen to 33,000 sixty years later.

Although this decline would be more accurately defined not as "the fall of Irish linen", but as "the rise of cotton and man-made fibers".


Man-Made Fibers

By the mid-1900's, new fabrics were being developed and manufactured around the world as many countries began opening up to global trade. Competition from cotton, jute, paper, plastics, and other man-made fibers cut heavily into linen mainstays such as handkerchiefs, towels, napkins, place mats, and table cloths. The price of linen was increasingly less competitive for many household goods. By the late fifties there was no significant market in which linen had a monopoly. On top of that, the general trend toward less formal living also worked against linen’s longstanding image of elegance. The inability of the Irish linen industry to close the price gap was due to the inherently high cost of the multiple processing stages necessary for linen production, the high cost of flax fibers, and lower production quantities due to flax's inferior weaving performance. 

The problem was automatic looms required a higher quality flax yarn to produce the same standard of cloth as old looms, but the trend in flax quality during the fifties was downward. For decades, the industry's flax fiber had come almost exclusively from France, Belgium and the Netherlands, but western Europe soon came under heavy competition from the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was by far the world’s leading flax producer and had previously been closed off to trade, but suddenly offered supplies in 1955 which unsettled the flax markets. Even though most of the Soviet flax supply was of low quality, this influx drove flax prices down to a level which made the crop virtually uneconomical in western Europe, leading to a decline in flax production of nearly 50 percent between the years of 1956 and 1959. Irish linen weavers preferred the higher quality western European fiber because of its uniformity and lower loss in processing, however it became much more expensive and harder to come by.


Western European flax region


Better fibers produced better yarns, which were needed for the higher quality products that the Irish linen industry began to find its niche in at this time. The many specialized companies in the various, laborious steps in linen production faced pressures from all sides to cut corners, but the technical requirements of linen processes made experiments in styles and colors much more expensive than its competitors. Additionally, the linen producers themselves were not keen on diluting their product. It was not until 1967 that the Irish Linen Guild finally and reluctantly agreed to promote linen blends. While the linen industry continued to make advances, it was increasingly at a technical disadvantage and simply could not make up for the shifting consumer demand. 

The various economic constraints imposed on the industry forced hundreds of linen-related firms to close or vertically integrate.



The prevalence of vertically integrated groups increased, though less from their own growth than from the demise of independents. The linen industry was comprised of seven sub-industries: spinning, threadmaking, weaving, finishing, printing, converting/making-up, and hemstitching. At the start of the century, the industry was dominated by small family-owned plants - only five companies were completely integrated from spinning to making-up. By the 1950's, the smaller firms were squeezed by raising labor costs, which made up about one-quarter of the total costs for spinning and weaving. This pressure forced consolidation and increased efficiencies only achievable with vertical and horizontal integration. 


Irish linen factory

Vertically integrated Irish linen factory (1950's)


Adjustments to changing conditions took many forms, including the creation of new processes and factory-floor measures to improve efficiency. Labor productivity increased considerably, but efficiency measures were insignificant as these efforts generated few profits and production and employment declined sharply. Even some of the largest, most technically modernized firms were closed and the more efficient survivors battled to be competitive. On average, one in every three large plants closed during the decade between 1950-1960. A few firms diversified successfully, several found better returns from closing plants and leasing or selling the properties, and many were forced to close down. 

The linen industry had lost the premier position it had held in Belfast for centuries. The reputation of linen companies became one of unreliable employment which deterred workers despite the already high levels of unemployment in Northern Ireland at the time. The chemical skills of textile finishers enabled some workers to diversify into molded packaging and plastics while others went to work in the now booming engineering and vehicle industries.

What remained of the Irish linen industry was much more dependent on the export of high quality goods. The industry was able to increase its linen yarn sales to countries such as Italy and West Germany because they had weaving capacity but less developed flax spinning industries, and because there was little competition for high quality yarns of the type spun in Ireland. It was at this time the distinction of quality between Irish linen and other linen industries became more marked. By 1970, Irish linen was sold in 66 countries and globally recognized to be a fabric of exquisite craftsmanship, so much so, the word “linen” had become inseparable from Ireland and its people worldwide.



21st Century - Irish Linen Quality Emerges

Today Irish linen is still manufactured in the same traditional areas, often by descendants of those who have worked in the industry and passed down skills learned over hundreds of years. While the industry now makes up a much smaller portion of the nation's economy, its brand name continues to represent quality, integrity, and the island of Ireland to many people around the world. New ways to blend linen for clothing, fabrics, and innovative technical uses keep the industry vital while it also continues to produce tried-and-true 100% Irish linen for the purists. 


Irish linen today


If we turn again to Conrad Gill's quote on the Irish linen industry at the turn of the 20th century, the quote rings strikingly true today as well: 

At the present time there is great activity in invention, research, and organization; and it is reasonable to expect that new methods, devised in a period of stress, will lead, as they did a hundred years ago, to a fresh era of development and prosperity.


While it may not have turned out to be true when it was published, perhaps there is genuine cause for optimism once again. The early 21st century has seen a growing movement against the mass importation of low-quality fabrics from low-cost countries, as well as an increasing demand of buyers to know the sustainable and ethical credentials of what they are buying. The appetite for authentic products is growing, as more people seek out items that have a purpose and a story behind them, one's reflecting their own cultures and heritage.

Whatever the future holds for Irish linen, its story will remain one of the most country-defining industrial epics there has ever been. The story of Irish linen is a story integral to the history of Ireland. The linen product built up and connected the tiny island of Ireland to the rest of the world in ways the country had not previously seen. We are very proud to continue the tradition of Irish linena product that embodies its history, with our handkerchiefs today.