Linen was synonymous with Belfast in the 1800s, much of the fine and ornate architecture we see today was built from the prosperity and investments made during the peak of the linen and shipbuilding industries, reflecting the affluence of the time. Belfast due to its linen industry developed the nickname Linenopolis. During the mid 1800s it accounted for over half the linen production and exports in Ireland. The industry brought with it major social and economic changes which affected the whole of Ireland. Many would say it was the catalyst for the industrial revolution that took Belfast from a small town to a major industrial city which became known throughout the world for innovation in manufacturing, engineering and shipbuilding.
Although the tradition of weaving goes back to earlier times in Ireland, linen began to develop into a commercial industry during the post plantation years when thousands of settlers arrived here from England, Scotland, Wales and Europe, bringing with them various skills including weaving, this not only boosted the local skill level it also increased the numbers of weavers in the country. Irish linen was produced in much smaller quantities before this. We have records of Irish earls, nobles and ladies wearing brightly coloured linen garments at court, in fact, Henry VIII introduced a tax on Irish linen to dissuade people from wearing brightly coloured clothing, preferring them to wear the traditional English attire of the time. The production of linen was a labour intensive cottage industry, not only was the flax grown from seed, it was pulled, stooked, retted in dams, dried, scutched, spun, weaved and beetled before being turned into brown and white linen which would then be sold at markets developed by the London Guilds during the Plantation of Ulster.
The wealth of the emerging industry did not remained with individual producers but with the drapers and bleachers who would buy the raw brown linen at market, process it and then sell it on. The practice of bleaching to turn it into white linen created further growth and a high demand for its sale and export. Interestingly, the first exportation of linen from Belfast to the American colonies was in 1704. Flax farming helped alleviate the hardships of subsistence farming throughout Ireland, it offered another source of income to supplement the low provision from the land. It was introduced, encouraged and readily taken up by rural farmers. There are not many places you can go in Ulster today without finding remnants of the flax industry or hearing stories about it.
Improvements in weaving techniques introduced by the Huguenots settlers contributed greatly to the advancement of the industry. One person who would play a significant role in the industry was Louis Crommelin, a weaver of fine linen from the town of Cambrai in France, he had taken up the incentives offered by William III and settled with a small community of Huguenots at Lisburn. Their influence on the industry led to the term ‘cambric’ being introduced for a much finer woven material. Crommelin was also appointed as overseer of the newly formed Royal Linen Manufacture of Ireland as part of the incentive from King William III. These new techniques made Ireland the leader in linen production and subsequently demand for Irish linen grew dramatically.
The expansion and development of linen bleaching led to more commercial developments, the traditional use of buttermilk and chlorine to turn green/brown linen to white was replace with oil of vitriol (dilute of sulphuric acid). The use of oil of vitriol was water intensive and this led to the development of bleaching works and linen greens where the bleached linen was dried. The Irish Linen Board formed in 1711 to promote the growth of the linen trade and offered grants and subsidies to encourage land owners to develop the necessary infrastructure for the industry.
They built the first White Linen Hall in Dublin in 1728 where bleached product was sold for export, later in 1787 the White Linen Hall was built in Belfast for direct export to England and overseas. This building stood where the present day City Hall is. Belfast became the leading city for linen with the port dominating exports. A challenge came to the industry when new developments and mechanization in cotton production coupled with an abundance of cotton imports to Europe. This saw new cotton mills starting up in Belfast, cotton was not a native plant and the raw materials had to be imported either directly or indirectly via England, still it proved a cheaper and easier commodity to produce than linen.
The new cotton industry saw in excess of fifty thousand people employed in Belfast which peaked in the 1820s. The phenomenal growth in the cotton industry forced new thinking into the linen industry and its production techniques. The solution came in what was known as ‘wet’ spinning, a process developed by James Kay in 1824, this process and the removal of protective tariffs on cotton helped bring the linen industry back into the forefront where it would stay for the next fifty years.
The population of Belfast doubled in size and by 1891 Belfast had overtaken the population of the capital Dublin. The city saw new mills and warehouses developed along with this textile factories increased in number. Linen was not only produced locally, it was also turned into finished products for the home and export markets.