From flax plant to Irish Linen work for all the family
Linen begins life as the flax plant, a pretty true-blue flowering plant, which is harvested in August, 100 days after sowing.
Traditionally, the process involved many members of a family. Men were usually responsible for seeding while women took charge of weeding as the flax plants grew. Keeping weeds to a minimum not only encouraged vigorous growth, it also meant the stem was more likely to grow upright.
At about one metre in height, the plant was ready for harvest, an operation that usually involved all adults and older children.
Care had to be taken in pulling the flax from the ground so that every inch of the stem would be retained. These stems were bundled together into sheaves (called beets) before being carried in carts to fallow fields where women and girls would spread them into stacks called stooks and leave them to dry in the sun.
When they had dried, the seeds were removed and saved either for next year's planting, or to make linseed oil or cattle feed. (See the left-hand column for details of how this remarkable plant is used as an important component in many day-to-day products.)
5 steps of yarn production
After drying, the flax plant is transformed into yarn in five stages: (l-r) Pulled flax; Retted flax; Scutched flax; Hackled flax; Spun flax (yarn).
Click image for enlarged view.
For our rural Irish ancestors, retting was an unmistakeable feature of life because the stench of the decomposing plants hung heavily over the countryside. Smelly though it was, retting helped to separate the valuable fibres from the core of the stem.
After ten days, the retted flax could be removed from the pond. It was hard and unpleasant work lifting the heavy, sodden, stinking mess from the water.
Scutching & HacklingAfter a few weeks drying off the rotting flax plants in fields, the next steps of the process began. Scutching was an unhealthily dusty job and was usually, but not always, performed by men as it required quite a bit of stamina. It involved beating the stems with a wooden mallet or blade to separate and clean the flax fibres, resulting in a tangled bunch of fine fibres.
These were then straightened by a hackler using combs of decreasing fineness. Hackling made the fibres soft and ready for spinning into a continuous thread: yarn.
SpinningBoth sexes could be involved in hackling but it was always women who spun the fibre into yarn. This is where the term 'spinster' originated and why it can only be applied to a woman.
Spinning was done on a low Irish wheel which was kept in motion by a foot treadle and resulted in bobbins of yarn which were then boiled in soapy water and dried. Even very young children played their part in the process by winding yarn onto pirns or bobbins.
From the spindle, the yarn was transferred to a loom to be woven into a cloth which, in its natural state, was a brownish colour.
WeavingIn the days before industrialisation of the linen market, many households had two or more looms and weaving was done by men. When the mills and factories took over the industry in 1830s, it was women who began to take charge of the looms, even those who were homeworkers under the so-called 'putting out' system. The main reason was that mill spun yarn was widely available and was easier to weave.
The introduction of power looms spelt the beginning of the end for the domestic, cottage-based, industry. In 1850 there were fewer than 60 of them in Ireland but within 25 years, there were more than 17,000. Even so, hand loom weaving of the very finest Irish linen fabric continued in workshops in the Linen Homeslands of Ulster for another 50 years.
BleachingTraditional bleaching methods included boiling the cloth in a solution of water and ashes, seaweed or fermented bran. The cloth was then rinsed and spread over an area of grass (bleach greens) to dry in the sun. Having aired, it was steeped in buttermilk, rinsed and spread out again. This process was repeated many times.
All this rinsing in Irelands soft water was said to be the secret ingredient that made Irish Linen superior.
BeetlingBeetling involved the pounding of the cloth with mechanised mallets to close up the weave. It was the final process in the transformation of the flax plant into beautiful cloth. This action is what gives Irish linen its dense sheen.
In the Irish Linen Homelands of Northern Ireland (chiefly around Lisburn, Belfast, Banbridge and Cookstown), the work of transforming the flax plant into yarn and then into beautiful cloth, eventually moved into huge mills.
Clonakilty's linen marketAlthough Northern Ireland became known as the Linen Homelands, the flax plant was grown in other parts of the island and there were many big mills outside Ulster. In the early 1800s, one of the largest, certainly the largest in Munster, was in Clonakilty, co Cork. It was owned by an Englishman called Dr Elmore and located in Mill Street.
Clonakilty already had a successful association with linen production and even by the 1740s considerable quantities of coarse yarn were being sold at the Friday market. As sales grew, a dedicated Linen Hall was built and by the early 1820s the industry employed more than 10,000 people in the surrounding districts.
Pigot's Directory of 1824 contained the following comments about the local industry: "The description of goods manufactured here is peculiar to the county of Cork and called vitries and twills; these are from three quarters to a yard wide and the average in price is from 41/2d to 8d per yard.
"The market is regularly attended by purchasers from Cork and Bandon who buy on commission for the English and Scotch houses; and the weekly sales are computed at upwards of £1,000. The market is superintended by Mr.Henry Franks, senior seal master."
It was also noted that apart from Dr Elmore's large factory, most local trade was carried on by persons "of small capital", employing one to four looms.
For most factory and mill employees, the working week consisted of eleven and a half or twelve hours (including meal breaks) from Monday to Friday plus a half day of six hours on Saturday. In terms of holiday, workers could take two days for Christmas, two days at Easter and two more days in July. Holiday breaks were not paid. These terms of employment applied to most staff over the age of thirteen.
Children were legally permitted to work at the mills from about the age of ten years on a part-time basis. They usually spent alternate days at the mill, typically working as doffers (replacing full yarn bobbins on the spinning frames with empty ones), and in the classroom. When they first started work, many suffered what became known as 'mill fever' before they adjusted to the high temperatures, damp or dusty environments, noise and exhaustion.
The scutching room was one of the most unhealthy because the air was filled with dry flax plant dust called 'pouce' and workers could not avoid inhaling it. As it settled in the lungs, it caused shortness of breath and many bronchial complaints.
The hackling and carding rooms were the most dangerous because the machines were not properly guarded. Facial and hand injuries, ranging from lacerations to mutilations, were the most common but fatal accidents were also a regular occurrence.
One of the dirtiest places to work in the mill was the spinning room. Temperatures were hot and humid and workers tended to be barefoot. In a study into the health of mill workers in 1852, it was found that spinning room workers were suffering from 'onychia and other diseases of the great toe nail' as a result of their feet getting wet with water impregnated with brass and other metals. They were also found to suffer skin problems.
In the weaving shed, noise and humidity were the main discomforts to be endured. The noise was caused by the carding machines, the looms and shuttles, while the dampness and heat was fed in to create the conditions needed for weaving yarn. But at least weavers had the satisfaction of earning higher wage rates than other mill workers.
With such unhealthy work, the mortality rate in the spinning mills and weaving factories was high. In the late 19th century, the average working life was 16.8 years.
Bleachers worked at the bleachworks where serious accidents and incidences of fever were fewer than in the spinning mills and weaving factories.
Even so, the work was backbreaking. Longer summer daylight hours meant bleachers often worked from 5.30am to 6pm Monday to Friday and 5.30am to 3pm on Saturdays.
Less than two hours were allowed for breakfast and dinner.
These long days helped to subsidise the shorter working hours of winter.
In 1796, the Irish Linen Board published its Spinning Wheel Entitlement List (also known as the Flax Growers Bounty or the Irish Flax Growers List), one of several lists created in response to special initiatives by the Government to encourage the production of linen. Nearly all these initiatives involved giving away spinning wheels and looms to individuals. This list was no exception.
It includes the names of persons who had cultivated a specified acreage of flax plant. Those who had planted one acre were awarded four spinning wheels while five acres of flax plant was rewarded with a loom.
Due to the dearth of pre-1800s nationwide resources for genealogists, this 1796 list is worth consulting as part of your family history research even though it contains no mention of townlands.
It is arranged by civil parish (and occasionally only the barony) and contains the names of nearly 60,000 individuals in all counties of Ireland except Dublin and Wicklow who had sown the required acreages of flax plant.