Fashion through the Ages: Irish Linen

Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum

A selection of designs in Irish linen, from 1700-1950

Irish linen in the 18th Century

A pair of off-white child's linen mittens, trimmed with lace and lined with silk.

These fine sage green silk shoes are lined with plain-weave linen, and inscribed by, what is believed to be, the owner, 'Mrs Strickland'.

Late eighteenth century Irish linen gentleman’s waistcoat, embroidered with a floral motif in gold thread. The linen lining is stamped by the white linen seal of William Henderson of county Antrim, who was either a linen draper or bleacher. It is not known if the making up and embroidery of the garment was carried out in Ireland, but the survival of the stamped linen seal is remarkable, particularly as this would only have been stamped once at the end of the length of cloth from which it was made.

The piece demonstrates the common use of Irish linen for clothing before cotton began to supplant it in popularity at the end of the eighteenth century.

The English-born artist Thomas Robinson (1756-1810) resided in Lisburn where he painted portraits of several of the town's leading citizens as well as his best known painting, the Battle of Ballynahinch, 1798. Note the Regency style dress of the two sisters, Frances and Mary Anne Pollock. The girls' mother Frances Jones, from outside Lisburn, married Joseph Pollock of Rostrevor. The Pollock family had interests in the linen industry, and had a large bleach green at Bessbrook, Co. Armagh, which was eventually bought over by the Richardson family, who set up the Bessbrook Spinning Co..

Changing fashions in the 19th century..

Quakers, or the Society of Friends, have a long association with the development of the linen industry in Ireland, particularly as linen drapers and bleachers. On his death the Quaker John Hancock, who owned a bleach green at Glenmore, Lisburn, left an endowment for the establishment of the Ulster Provincial School (now Friends' Lisburn) at Prospect Hill in the town. It was here, in 1810, that Hannah Morrison (b1796) practised her sewing and embroidery skills on this linen sampler.

A corner detail of fine damask napkin woven for John Talbot (1791-1852), 16th Earl of Shrewsbury and one-time Lord High Steward of Ireland. The napkin was woven in c.1820s by 'Coulsons, Lisburn, Ireland, manufrs to the King' in their thatched weaving factory. This detail shows a neo-classical border of swirling leaves and passion flowers, a fashionable design in the early nineteenth century.

This jacket, part of a travelling suit, was likely made of unbleached, or partially bleached, linen for a young gentleman. In each of the coat tails there are two inside pockets.

Lightweight and washable, linen was a popular choice for children's clothes in the mid-nineteenth century. This linen shirt has a frilled collar with cord-tapered sleeves.

This mid-nineteenth century ladies' linen collar is decorated with cutwork, a form of embroidery where the linen is cut away and then reinforced at the sides.

Belfast muslin manufacturer John Watson & Co. gave out collars, such as this, and other pieces to be embroidered by women in their homes.

A Richardson, Sons & Owden gold decorative label, embossed on linen, and featuring the distinctive Richardson-family lion rampant trademark . J.N. Richardson (1782-1847) - whose family owned Ulster's largest bleach green at Glenmore, Lisburn - established a partnership with John Owden in 1825, forming the company. From their iconic warehouse in Donegal Square (built c.1869), the company sold an assortment of their own dress linens, damasks, handkerchiefs, embroidered linen, sheeting, towels and table linens. Known worldwide for their fine Irish linen, by 1900 Richardson, Sons & Owden had offices in London, New York, Berlin, Paris and Melbourne.

Opened in 1888 as the Royal Irish Linen Warehouse, Robinson & Cleaver's prestigious eight storey Italianate building stood prominently on Donegall Square North, opposite the site of Belfast's White Linen Hall (now the City Hall). Designed by the well known Belfast architects Young and Mackenzie, over 50 sculpted heads of patrons of the firm, from Queen Victoria to the Maharajah, decorated the building. Robinson & Cleaver sold a variety of fashions and textiles, including linen. Many of the firm's products came from the thousands of handloom weavers, embroiderers and shirtmakers employed in the industry in the north of Ireland. At one time it was estimated that a third of all packages leaving Belfast came from Robinson & Cleaver's mail order business while its opulent showrooms, complete with a ladies' parlour and refreshment room, showed off the latest fashions in ladies' and men's clothing and household linens. This watercolour, by Marcus Ward & Co. of Belfast featured in the firm's stand at the Paris Exhibition, 1889.

Irish linen in the 20th century..

Early twentieth-century ladies' linen skirt and three-quarter length linen jacket, decorated with ornate flower motifs using cutwork and drawn-thread work.

Worn by a County Down bride on her wedding day in Portaferry, August 1909, this eight-panelled Edwardian linen parasol is decorated with embroidered grapes and vine leaves, as well as cutwork shamrocks. The wooden handle is stamped with the name of the well-known London umbrella manufacturer Paragon Fox Ltd, a trading name of Samuel and William Fox.

Woven at John Shaw Brown's linen weaving factory, Edenderry, County Down, this proof cloth was woven in yarn of different colours to highlight any errors in the design before a final product was produced in the quantity ordered, and bleached white. The client, The Irrawaddy Flotilla Company (1865-c.1940), carried passengers and cargo on the Irrawaddy River, Burma. For the European passengers there would have been an expectation of dining with high quality table linen, even in the midst of the jungle.

Carried by a female agent acting on behalf of the Old Bleach Linen Co. ltd, Randalstown, and Ireland Bros, Belfast, as they visited clients across the United States, this attaché contained samples of their latest linen designs, from fine damask to richly coloured linen cloth.

Embossed with the crest of Queen Mary (1867-1953), wife of King George V (1865-1936), this miniature damask napkin was produced for inclusion in the Queen Mary's Dolls' House. Designed by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944), the 1/12 size model house featured the latest fashions, luxury linens and a range of miniature accessories, including a real flushing toilet. Gifted to Queen Mary, the house was later put on display for charity.

This plain weave linen bedsheet carries the hand-embroidered monogram, 'M' of Queen Mary (1867-1953), Queen Consort of the United Kingdom and its Dominions, and wife of King George V (1865-1936).

Founded in Liverpool in the mid nineteenth century, the White Star Line’s fleet sailed regularly between Britain and Australia. The company’s most famous ship was the RMS Titanic, which sank in the Atlantic in 1912. The White Star Line placed huge order in Ulster for linen, from bed linens to towelling and tables linens. Something of the demand for production is illustrated by the fact that the Titanic alone required 45,000 linen damask napkins and 6,000 tablecloths. This napkin was designed for the White Star Line in the early 1930s, prior to the company’s merger with its rival, Cunard. The repeating white star motif is bordered by a patterned scroll. The design is printed on point paper; each square on the paper corresponds to a card, and these cards are fed into the Jacquard loom, producing the finished design. Fine linen napkins adorned the tables of these luxury ocean liners, and added to the opulence of the voyage.

Made in Northern Ireland, this finely-woven linen slipcase was displayed on a bed, and contained personal items such as a folded nightgown. It is decorated with drawn and pulled thread embroidery.

Short-sleeved Irish linen day dress with embroidered cotton floral motif.

New damask patterns were woven in yarn of different colours to highlight any errors in the design before a final product was produced. This cloth was woven on a hand loom by Lurgan weaver John McCollum at the accession of Queen Elizabeth II. The royal arms can be seen in the centre of the cloth, and 'ER II 1952, BP' (Buckingham Palace) is woven into each corner.

Designed by Sybil Connolly (1921-1988), this pleated wedding gown was made for an American client in bleached linen. Woven in County Armagh by Spence Bryson & Co., it was exclusively pleated for Connolly's Dublin-based fashion house. Sybil Connolly also designed dresses and skirts in pleated linen dyed in a range of rich colours.

From the 1920s onwards, the Old Bleach Linen Co. Ltd, Randalstown, pioneered the weaving and finishing of highly-fashionable hand-painted damask linens, including this table cloth. The company expertly marketed their goods, including tray cloths, tablecloths, napkins and towels, to the United States. Old Bleach also produced fabrics for the Odeon cinema chain, ocean liners, including the Queen Mary and for the interior of aircraft. This tablecloth, likely woven as a sample, features hand painted flowers, and carries the ink stamp of Old Bleach on its corner.

This shirt, in sky blue, features a grandfather or granddad collar. This style was popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and was often worn by working men. Designed by Trory Ireland, this linen was woven by Baird McNutt, Ireland. The shirt is an example of modern Irish linen design.

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Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum.

Market Square
BT28 1AG

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