From the 15th century Ireland was supplying fine linen yarns to the British and European markets. In particular, the yarns were being purchased by hand-loom weavers in the north of England where a steady industry flourished. Emigration from this area to the Ulster plantations between 1610 and 1670 led to the establishment of a highly skilled workforce proficient in all areas of the linen industry such as weaving, bleaching and finishing. This emerging industry was primarily cottage-based, carried out in the homes of the weavers and many began to settle around the shores of the Lough. Flax grown in nearby fields was retted and scutched by hand and the fibre spun into yarn by the womenfolk, while the men wove the yarn on hand-looms. The cloth would then be bleached and finished ready for sale in the market towns.
Weaving was practised on all shores of the Lough as both a profession and also as a means of supplementing the income of farmers and fishermen. The cottages of the professional rural weavers were described as being modest but well kept with provision for a pig and some hens. Those who rented a small land holding often kept a cow for milk and butter but seldom grew crops or even had a vegetable garden and therefore had to buy in potatoes, oats and flour, the main staple of their diet. When the markets were good this was not a problem but when the price of linen fell and money was not forthcoming, the weavers soon felt the pinch. It was perhaps the need for weavers to have smooth, un-calloused hands that made them reluctant to farm; as thick rough hands catching on the fine linen cloth would prove disastrous. Their disinterest in farming was lambasted by Arthur Young writing in the late 18th century…
“View the North of Ireland; you there behold a whole province peopled by weavers; it is they who cultivate, or they beggar the soil, as well as work the looms; agriculture is there in ruins… all the crops you see are contemptible; are nothing but filth and weeds. No other part of Ireland can exhibit the soil in such a state of poverty and desolation… the cause of all these evils… [is]the [linen] fabric spreading over all the country, instead of being confined to towns. (A. Young, A Tour in Ireland, ii (Dublin) pp 162-3)”
The processing of flax became mechanised during the 18th century as did the spinning of yarn. Because of this spinning in the home, which was a source of income for many women, became redundant by the end of that century. Fortunately by the early part of the 19th century employment for women was to be found in the weaving of cotton in the newly established cotton mills. Cotton manufacturing had become big business during the 18th century thanks to the industrial revolution. Prior to this spinning and weaving of cotton had, like linen, undertaken in the home by hand but inventions such as the Flying Shuttle (Kay, 1733), the Spinning Jenny (Hargreaves 1765), the Water Frame (Arkwright, 1769) and the Mule (Crompton, 1779) allowed for manufacturing on an industrial scale, which saw the establishment of thousands of cotton factories in the British Isles. These factories were powered by water necessitating a location beside rivers and streams making sites around the lough an ideal location. The industry was further aided by the invention of Boulton and Watt’s steam engine in 1781; and this move from water to steam power saw new factories being built close to the local source of coal whether it be adjacent to docks or at the coalmines themselves.
Although cotton was imported from America and the West Indies it was still cheaper to produce than linen. This, coupled with the industrialization of cotton manufacturing, resulted in a decline in the price of linen during the first few decades of the 19th century. However, during the latter part of that century, linen made a comeback with the invention of ‘wet spinning’ which allowed for a finer yarn to be produced mechanically. Previously it was not possible to spin flax on machines and all yarn had to be spun by hand. The new machines, invented by Philippe Henri de Girard in France in 1810 (and further developed by James Kay in 1824), was first patented in England in 1814 and the first linen factory in Northern Ireland was opened in 1815 in a former cotton mill at Winetavern Street, Belfast. Others soon followed.
Outside of the towns weavers continued to produce hand-woven goods but they were soon overtaken by the new factories where more cloth could be produced quicker. By the mid 19th century thousands of rural weavers and spinners from the Lough Neagh area and beyond were forced to seek employment in burgeoning linen towns of Lurgan, Lisburn and Belfast.
The linen industry flourished at the expense of the cotton industry during the latter part of the 19th century, most especially during the American Civil War when the importation of cotton was disrupted. Its importance continued into the 20th century and was only curtailed by the introduction of cheaper synthetic materials after WWII. However, the legacy of the Linen Industry in Northern Ireland continues to this day and is best promoted by the Linen Museum located in centre of Lisburn.