Why Irish Linen?

Artist Blog Ireland Irish Art Irish Linen Art Irish Linen Artwork nature Nature Art Northern Ireland Northern Irish History Ruth Osborne Art Textile Art ireland

Image of Irish Linen

I adore working on Irish Linen. You can probably tell that if you have looked at my work before!

There are artistic or aesthetic reasons I primarily work on linen. From the way it holds marks in a painterly and abstracted manner to how it can hold and transform colour, and the texture of the weave that becomes part of the finished design.

But I am also fascinated by its history in Ireland, in particular Northern Ireland. Belfast was known as Linenopolis and the linen produced there was famous world-wide.

Prior to industrialisation, the manufacturing of linen was a slow process of production by hand; sowing, pulling, retting, hackling, spinning, weaving and finishing. Hard, hard labour tied to the seasons and undertaken by entire families. Travelling weavers would move throughout the country working to turn the prepared flax fibres into beautiful cloth. This production process was by no means easy, but it was undertaken with pride, dedication and masterful skill.

There are signs of both the industrial age of linen and the ‘cottage industry’ era of linen throughout the landscape in Northern Ireland. Former mills now transformed into hotels and apartments, townlands bearing the names of well-known figures from the linen industry, retting ponds or lint holes still to be found on farm land, and bleach greens still visible across the country. My primary school in County Down, Northern Ireland, actually used a former bleaching green for our annual sports days. The school stood in the shadow of a former mill, which was once the main employer for the people of the town.

This is not to romanticise the linen industry. For the process of turning ‘the wee blue blossom’ (as the flower of the flax was known here) into the renowned, beautiful fabric, often delicately stitched with whitework embroidery, was one that was painstaking, slow, and often dangerous. There are many stories of weavers and mill workers (known as ‘Millies’ in Belfast) being injured by the speed of the shuttles and the water workers stood in (damp conditions were necessary for working with the flax fibres) often resulted in disease and breathing difficulties. Then of course there were the women, working in their homes to embroider and decorate these fine linens. Earning necessary extra money for their households and working under intense scrutiny from the agents who delivered the linens to be sewn and who administered the remuneration if the work was deemed clean and perfect. The slightest mark would mean the linen was unusable and payment would be withheld.

Irish Linen is also very much a part of women’s history in Ireland and Northern Ireland- another reason I find it’s heritage fascinating. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries (when Irish Linen production was at its peak), women were very much second class citizens. Yet, they played a vital role in sustaining and creating one of the most valuable Northern Irish commodities of the time. Then there's the family history. The 'bottom drawer' of linens handed from mother to daughter, kept for best. Treasured heirlooms still starched and crisp and often still to be found, generations later, within families.

Every time I cut a piece of Linen I think of all these things; the history, the family connections, the labour, and I love it even more.

So, while my work is a celebration of nature, for me, it's also a celebration of the heritage of Irish Linen and that's something I hope anyone who buys a little piece of my work can celebrate too.

If you would like to learn more about the Linen industry in Northern Ireland then here are some useful resources and websites:

Ulster Folk Museum, Warp and Weft Story (including excellent photographs from the Museum's archive):  https://www.nmni.com/story/warp-and-weft-story

Living Linen Oral History Archive: https://www.nmni.com/collections/history/sound-and-visual-media-archives/living-linen

Digital Film Archive, Northern Ireland, Linen Industry Collection: https://digitalfilmarchive.net/collection/the-linen-industry-18

Ferguson’s Irish Linen, The History of Linen: https://www.fergusonsirishlinen.com/pages/index.asp?title2=History-of-Irish-Linen&title1=About-Linen

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