The Story of Irish Linen: Flax to Fabric

Tracing the history of Irish linen, from its 17th-century origins to worldwide renown.

What is linen?

Linen is a type of cloth woven from the fibre of the flax plant.  It is one of the world's oldest textiles. The history of linen in Ireland, and beyond, is told in the Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum's permanent exhibition,'Flax to Fabric: the story of Irish Linen'.

Egyptian linen (1323 BC) by Artist UnknownIrish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum

1323 BC: Linen from the tomb of Tutankhamun

Taken from the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings, Luxor, Egypt by Howard Carter (1874-1939) in 1922, this cloth was given to Lt. Col. Victor Unsworth, a buyer for the York Street Flax Spinning Co, by the famous archaeologist.

Linen had various uses, at different times, in the Egyptian world. It was used for both clothing, and as a shroud for the dead.

Nobleman (1550) by Irish Linen CentreIrish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum

Irish linen, in the beginning..

Flax has been cultivated for centuries in Ireland, and as far back as the first millennium.  This 16th-century Irish nobleman is wearing a tunic of saffron-dyed linen cloth. Yet it was not until the 17th century that what came to be known as Ireland's greatest industry really took off. Largely concentrated in Ulster, the market town of Lisburn Co. Antrim (along with others towns in the Lagan and Bann valleys) was at the heart of the flourishing linen industry.

Essay, Louis Crommelin, 1705, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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1705: Improving the Hemp and Flax Manufactories in the Kingdom of Ireland

This is the title page of Louis Crommelin's seminal ‘Essay towards the Improving of the Hempen and Flaxen Manufactories in the Kingdom of Ireland,’ in 1705. Crommelin (1652-1727), a Huguenot, established a model linen factory in Lisburn in the late 1690s, and was once identified as the father of the Irish linen industry. Modern scholarship has amended this view, and the arrival of settlers from northern England in the mid-17th century is now seen as much more significant.

Louis Crommelin, Dutch School, 1900, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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Overseer of the Royal Linen Manufacture in Ireland

This portrait, by an unknown artist, is a nineteenth-century copy of an earlier work. The subject, Louis Crommelin (1652-1727), was born in Picardy, and is buried in Lisburn Cathedral, close to where he established his model manufactory with a colony of Huguenot refugees following his appointment by William III as Overseer of the Royal Linen Manufacture in Ireland.

The Irish flax flower (2011) by Artist UnknownIrish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum

From Flax to Fabric

How linen was made..

The wee blue blossom

Known as the 'wee blue blossom', the flax flower blossomed in mid summer before the plant was pulled in August. It was a common sight across the Irish countryside, although at the height of the Irish linen industry in the late nineteenth century much of the flax used by the industry was imported from Belgium and Russia.

Irish flax seed and stems, Artist Unknown, 2011, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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Irish flax seed and sems

In Ireland flax was usually pulled when the stems were still green. Although this produces fine flax the seed cannot be harvested. As such, part of the crop was allowed to grow past the 'pulling season', and the seed from the now dry and yellow plant was harvested for sowing the next year.

Hackling pins for combing flax, Artist Unknown, 1850, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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Hackling pins for combing flax

After scutching (the process of breaking the long, dry flax plant down and separating the fibrous part of the plant from the stems (or shoves)), the flax was hackled. Using a hackling comb, the long pins were brushed through the flax, removing any short fibres. The long, smooth flax, known as line flax, was ready to spin into yarn. The excess material was known as tow, and could be used to produce rope and coarse linen goods.

Engraving (1783) by William HincksIrish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum

A family affair

In 1783 William Hinks (active 1773-1791) published a series of 12 stipple engravings depicting the various stages of the production of linen cloth, from sowing the flax to its eventual sale in the White Linen Hall, Dublin. Plate Six depicts the spinning of yarn on a Dutch wheel, a process that transformed scutched and hackled flax into a continuous thread known as yarn which was evenly wound onto bobbins by the spinning wheel’s flyer. Once rewound on a clock or click reel (shown) into hanks and spangles (distinct measurements) the yarn was then boiled in a pot on the fire. When dry, the yarn was ready for weaving. The scene is representative of the 'cottage industry' that was largely centred in Ulster in the eighteenth century, and survived until 1830. The whole family was involved, from the men growing and pulling flax in the fields, women and young girls spinning, and men weaving and taking the brown cloth to market.

Spinning Wheels at the Spinner's Cottage

Marble bust, Thomas Kirk, c.1826, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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Overseeing the industry: The Irish Linen Board (1711)

The Irish Linen Board was established in 1711 to 'exercise a watchful supervision' over the linen industry, from the growing and processing of flax, to the weaving, sale and export of cloth. The controls put in place by the Linen Board helped secure Ireland's reputation for producing fine linen. James Corry (1772-c1837) followed in his father's footsteps when, in 1796, he was appointed secretary of the Irish Linen Board. He published a number of influential reports, including A Report of a Tour of Inspection Through the Province of Ulster which detailed his visit to Lisburn's Brown Linen Hall and the famous Coulson's factory. Corry wound up the Linen Board in 1828, believing that the industry was strong enough to stand by itself, and no longer needed the Board's support.

This bust was produced by the Cork-born sculptor Thomas Kirk (1781-1845), who was well-known for portrait busts and for sculpting the statue of Nelson, mounted on Nelson's Pillar, Dublin.

Linen hank, Artist Unknown, 2016, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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Linen hank

A hank, or measure, of linen yarn. The raw flax has been scutched and hackled (combed), and the long fibrous flax have been spun into yarn, ready for weaving.

Brown Linen seal, Artist Unknown, 1796, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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The seal

The Irish Linen Board first appointed brown linen seal-masters to inspect and seal unbleached linen before it was sold at market. Soon however, there was scarcely a weaver who was not his own seal-master using a seal which included his name, civil parish and county. This seal was issued to John Johnston, Aghaderg, Co. Down.

White linen seal, James Henderson, Co. Down, Artist Unknown, 1770, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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James Henderson's seal

Linen bleachers and drapers (who dealt in cloth) were expected to be responsible for the quality of the cloth they were bleaching, finishing and selling on, and were required to lap their cloth and stamp it in ink with an official seal bearing their name, county and the government’s crown and harp insignia. James Henderson was a linen draper and probably a bleacher who owned Ravernet House, outside Lisburn, and this seal is of a design dating from 1750-80.

Jacquard hand loom (1960) by Artist UnknownIrish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum

Weaving Irish Iinen..

From the home to the factory, the revolution in Ireland's linen industry. 

From Flax to Fabric, Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum, 2014, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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Types of linen cloth

Linen can we woven into various different types of cloth, from coarse canvas (e.g. sails, tents) or duck (e.g. suits), through to finer diaper (e.g. towels) or Cambric (e.g. handkerchiefs).

Damask is the finest, and most elegant, type of linen cloth. It is woven with an intricate pattern, and finished with a smooth sheen (the result of the beetling process).

Handloom in the museum's Weaving Workshop

In Ireland, throughout the eighteenth century, weaving was done on handlooms in the family home.

Flying shuttle for weaving damask, John McCumiskey, 1850, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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The flying shuttle

The shuttle is, perhaps, the most important aspect of a loom. It is used to pass the weft yarn through the warp thread (at a right angle), allowing cloth to be woven.

In Ireland, long after the invention of the flying shuttle in 1733, weavers continued to throw the shuttle by hand, but by the early nineteenth century most handloom weavers had switched to the much faster flying shuttle.

This shuttle was made by J. McCumiskey, Lisburn.

Coulson's Damask Manufactory, Artist Unknown, 1900, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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The Coulson Factory

Ireland was famed for linen damask, a fine cloth with a pattern woven into it. Perhaps the most famous factory in the history of Irish damask is the workshop of William Coulson (1739-1801), who established his weaving company in Lisburn, Co. Antrim, in 1764. After his death his sons John, William, Walter and James continued the business, and brought it to the height of its fame and achievement, in the mid-nineteenth century, with royal orders from the Prince Regent and Queen Victoria. The original thatched factory continued to produce hand-woven table linen for royal and other prestigious clients until the 1950s.

About 1830 the Coulsons of Lisburn replaced their draw looms with innovative Jacquard looms, allowing the production of a larger range of damask designs at a lower cost.

Jacquard hand loom (1960) by Artist UnknownIrish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum

The invention of Jacquard

The French weaver Joseph Marie Charles (1752-1834), known as Jacquard, developed the Jacquard mechanism in Lyon in the early nineteenth century. Attached to a handloom, the Jacquard system uses punch cards to control the relative position of the warp and weft, allowing intricate damask designs to be woven. The loom sped up the weaving process, and allowed greater innovation in the design and production of highly-sought damask. This particular loom is set up and operated in the weaving workshop of the Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum.

Innovations in weaving, along with the introduction of the wet spinning process in c.1824, set the scene for the emergence of the powerloom in the Irish linen industry in the mid nineteenth century. It was in this period that linen trade boomed, becoming Ireland's most important industry.

Damask napkin woven (c.1820) by William Coulsons & SonsIrish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum

A fine damask napkin

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 likely woven on a drawloom in c. 1820s by 'Coulsons, Lisburn, Ireland, manufrs to the King'. This detail shows a neo-classical border of swirling leaves and passion flowers, a fashionable design in the early nineteenth century.

Punched Jacquard card (1850) by Artist UnknownIrish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum

Jacquard mechanism reading the punched cards


Damask (fine linen with a design woven into it) designs were originally laid out on point paper (regular grid) for draw boys to read and in turn lift the appropriate warp threads, allowing patterns to be woven on a draw-loom. With the invention of the Jacquard mechanism, damask designs were now transferred from point paper to rigid cards. Sewn together in sequence, the Jacquard mechanism acted like a primitive computer, lifting the loom's warp threads and allowing the weaver to produce damask without the need for a draw boy.

Point Paper Design (1999) by Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn MuseumIrish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum

Mapping designs for weaving

This sample illustrates the process of mapping a design for weaving. Printed on point paper, each square of the design corresponds to a card, and these cards are fed into the Jacquard loom, producing the finished design.

Glenmore Bleach Green, Artist Unknown, 1860s, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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Glenmore bleach green

Brown linen was bleached white in the sun, and at this site in Glenmore, outside Lisburn, Co. Antrim, cloth had been laid out on the green to be bleached since at least the eighteenth century. By 1900 it was the largest bleach works in Ulster. The site was closed in the 1960s. This lithograph shows a view, looking south, from the Railway embankment.

Glenmore bleach green was owned and operated in the nineteenth century by Richardson, Sons & Owden, the world-famous linen merchants.

Weaving on powerlooms, Unknown Artist, 1900, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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Weaving on powerlooms

From 1860, the steam-driven powerloom came to dominate the Irish linen industry. Huge factories, such as York Street Flax Spinning Co. ltd, employed thousands of men, women and children, producing a range of linen goods, from sheets to napkins. In this photograph, women can be seen weaving tea towels.

Industrialisation not only brought about the demise of the Irish hand-loom weaving industry, but saw huge numbers of people flock from the countryside to cities and towns such as Belfast and Lisburn for work.

Model Atherton powerloom (1910) by Artist UnknownIrish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum

The noise of a working powerloom

Hand-powered powerloom

Designed and manufactured by the Lancashire firm Atherton Brothers (established 1835), this hand-powered model powerloom was used to demonstrate the weaving of cloth to students at the Belfast College of Technology, College Square. Many were apprentices in the factories, and attended 'the Tech' in the evening to further their knowledge of the mechanics of weaving fabrics.

Island Spinning Mill (1890) by Island Spinning MillIrish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum

A working factory

The Quaker Samuel Richardson (d.1847) built a spinning mill at this site on the River Lagan, at Lisburn, in 1840, which had previously housed a works for producing vitriol for bleaching linen. After the mill burned down, Joseph Richardson (1822-1906) re-developed the site which became the Island Spinning Company in 1867. Most famous for its linen thread, the company also wove cloth on powerlooms.

Island Spinning Mill, Island Spinning Mill, 1900, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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Linen and its uses..

Linen had a variety of uses including linen thread, which was used in embroidery, or for sewing boots and clothes.

This spool of thread is from the Island Spinning Mill, Lisburn. By 1900 around 1100 workers were employed in weaving linen and twisting thread here. It closed in 1983.

Telephone thread, Artist Unknown, 1900, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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Linen and its uses..
As well as sewing and embroidery, linen thread had practical applications in telephones. Wires were insulated using linen thread. Barbours' of Lisburn, through the Linen Thread Co. ltd, were one of the largest manufactures of linen telephone thread.

William Barbour & Sons, Hilden, Lisburn, William Barbour & Sons, 1890, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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The world-famous Hilden Mill

In 1784 John Barbour, from Paisley, Scotland, set up a thread mill at the Plantation, Lisburn. After his death his son William consolidated the family's business at a new site at Hilden on the banks of the River Lagan, outside Lisburn. By the late 19th century the Barbours owned thread factories in Hamburg, Germany and Paterson New Jersey, USA. The linen thread produced by the Barbours was ubiquitous, used to stitch everything from high-end clothes to boots and shoes.

Barbour linen Thread and its uses

Postcard advertisement for Barbour's fishing nets, William Barbour & Sons, 1900, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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Linen and its uses..

As well as producing fine linen thread for sewing and stitching, Barbour's and the Linen Thread Co. supplied a huge number of twines and netting for use by the fishing industry.

Golf thread, Artist Unknown, 1930, From the collection of: Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum
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Linen and its uses..

Advertisement promoting golf thread, which was wrapped around the handle of golf clubs to secure the grip to the shaft. Stewart's Mill, in the centre of Lisburn, was a feature of the town's skyline up until its closure and eventual demolition in 1985 .

Linen-Covered Bristol Fighter Wing

Because it was plentiful, lightweight, strong and resistant (when doped) linen was an ideal covering for aircraft. During the First World War (1914-18), almost all the aircraft that took to the sky were covered in fine Irish linen. Linen factories, mainly in Ulster, produced millions of yards of aeroplane cloth, with Lord French - British Commander of the Home Forces - to proclaim that the "war had been won on Ulster linen wings" .

Credits: Story

For more information visit:

Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum.

Market Square
BT28 1AG

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