History and Information

The History of Irish Linen from Belfast

It was back in the early 18th and 19th centuries, that linen trade played a fundamental role in both the social and economic development in Belfast, Ireland.

The manufacture of linen provided the catalyst which could allow the town to grow rapidly during the 1860’s into the linen capital of the world.

North of Ireland farms had turned linen production into a domestic industry, creating work for the household which in turn generated income from sales at the local market.

At these farms, flax fibres were harvested and then scutched a process where impurities from the raw material are separated, such as the seeds from raw cotton or the straw and woody stem from flax fibres. This was usually done by hand however, by the early 19th century scutching machines were introduced which allowed the raw material to be processed into a continuous sheet of cotton wadding known as a lap.

During this time the wealth of the linen trade was in the hands of drapers and bleachers who expended their capital through the purchase of the raw brown linens, these were then bleached over a period of six months. The finished white cloth was sold on later. In 1728 the Linen Board built a White Linen Hall in Dublin where the bleached linen was sold for export. However, as linen manufacture began to spread in Ulster the northern bleachers built their own White Line Hall in Belfast, so that they could deal with the exports of linen directly with English traders. This quickly enforced the port of Belfast as one of the dominating linen cloths exporters in the world. 

Technical innovations in cotton spinning meant that cotton could be produced considerably cheaper than linen, by 1811 the cotton industry employed over 50,000 people in and around Belfast. The success of cotton spinning inspired inventors to think of ways in which mechanisation could speed up linen production.

 In 1825, James Kay of Preston invented a method of ‘wet spinning’ which passed the flax through warm water, which enabled a much finer yarn to be spun. By the late 1820’s several ‘wet’ spinning mills using water-power had been built in Ulster. People flocked to Belfast to work in the new spinning mills doubling both its landmass and population by 1850 to 62 mills within the region, employing 19,000 workers, by 1871 there were 78 mills and a workforce of 43,000. 

During this time the building of linen warehouses and mills dramatically altered the shape and size of Belfast. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, the southern-most tip of the city was located where the City Hall stands today. It was erected on the site of the old White Linen Hall which was right on the periphery of the town when it was first built. It was a key building, because it became the focus of social and economic activity in the town. The bulk of linen manufacture carried on in the west of the city but small factories which made up the linen into finished goods were located close to the White Linen Hall site, as were linen warehouses and administrative offices.

This allowed Belfast to outstrip Dublin in terms of population size by 1891, largely due to the success of its linen industry. Belfast, Ireland was by then the largest linen producing area in the world, and this continued to be the case up until World War I; the city greatly earned the nickname of Linenopolis.