I have just returned to London after almost 3 weeks at home in Northern Ireland, and I spent time with some fascinating people still involved with the linen trade.
It was the end of July and the flax was in bloom. The pretty blue flowers just about visible here outside the Irish Linen Museum in Lisburn.
I almost feel like a bundle of flax that has been immersed in a retting dam and has emerged after the 2 to 3 weeks of soaking, ready to be dried in the sun and then moved on to the next phase of linen production! In my case I have been submerged in a wealth of information and anecdotes about linen, and have now surfaced to let the vast quantity of facts settle in my head. After 2 weeks of almost constant rain I could certainly do with some sun to assist the process!
I was reminded of how precious linen was to the producers. In the days when linen was laid out on linen greens for bleaching, it was not uncommon for the linen to be stolen. Watchtowers were built so that the greens and their valuable contents could be guarded at all hours. I visited one such tower near Banbridge, which has been restored by the Follies Trust.
This small stone hut was one of 2 guarding the Uprichard Bleaching Green at Tullylish. The second one has been removed and rebuilt at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Cultra, near Belfast.
I saw beautiful damask cloths and napkins being woven at Thos Ferguson in Banbridge, the only remaining damask weavers in Ireland.
I took a trip to Co. Londonderry too and had the opportunity to visit Upperlands, the village which is home to William Clark & Sons Ltd. The village owes its existence to the linen trade, a mill was founded there in 1736. Remarkably the mill is still in the hands of the same family after all this time and I was privileged to be shown around by Bruce Clark, a direct descendant of William Clark.
As we drove into the car park I could hear the throbbing sound of the beetling engines.We enjoyed a coffee in the community run coffee shop housed in one of the former mill buildings and then Bruce took me across the yard to the beetling shed. Quite an experience! I met Sam Anderson, the beetler and he explained to me the process of pounding the cloth with huge wooden mallets to flatten it and give it the distintive sheen. Sam is the last commercial beetler in Ireland.
Click on the image below for a snippet of film of the huge beetling engine pounding the cloth on the roller.
Clark's process is known as wet beetling and gives the cloth a finish not dissimilar to patent leather. Damask used to be finished by dry beetling, giving it that wonderful lustrous sheen which set it apart from unbeetled cloth.
I have lots more to share from my trip, but I will finish here for now.