Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Last Hand Weaver of Irish Linen Damask

The Last Hand Weaver

Sorry for the gap since my last post, but I was back in Ireland attending to family things. While I was there I took the opportunity to visit a couple of local museums, both of which have amassed a huge amount of information on the linen trade and its importance to both the cultural and industrial heritage of Northern Ireland.

The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Cultra, near Belfast houses a vast and varied collection of linens, some used to furnish the outdoor museum. One of the recreated buildings is the Ballydugan weaver's cottage, complete with earthen floor and thatched roof.

There I was very privileged to meet the last hand weaver of linen damask on the island of Ireland.  John McAtasney has been a weaver for 65 years, starting at the age of 14. His knowledge and skill are unparalleled. He explained how the designs were transferred from the artist's drawing to a point paper or chart, which then enabled the punch cards to be made allowing the damask designs to be woven on the loom. Each point or square on the paper corresponded to the raising or lowering of a weft or warp thread.

Creating a set of punch cards from a point chart could take up to 6 months for a napkin design or 18 months for a tablecloth. It would then take the hand weaver 4 hours to weave just one napkin. It really brought home to me the incredible skill and patience needed to produce these beautiful designs. No surprise that hand woven Irish Linen damask was the most prized of cloths.

John has been working for both the Lisburn and Ulster Folk Museums for the past 40 years or so and you can really tell how important the craft is to his daily life.  I was amazed at how fit he is, climbing up 3 or 4 feet to fix a malfunction on the loom with the agility of a man 50 years his junior!

We chatted for a while, then with a twinkle in his eye he said - "It is lovely to talk to you, but all this chat is keeping me from my loom. You won't mind if I get back to work!" 

He was working on a beautiful design of napkins, with deer and game birds intricately woven into the cloth. It was a delight to watch him at his craft and to learn first hand of all it entails.  


  1. I have just found this as interested in linen weaving by hand. Do you have a contact for visiting if he is still alive? I would love to go and talk with him or if you have notes from your meeting on dressing the loom etc. I only have a small loom but one day ! perhaps an old big one... thank you so much. Ruth