Linen is the oldest fabric known to man - it even pre-dates the invention of the wheel!
When Pre-Historic man decided that fur and skins were no longer the height of fashion, he turned to the fibres of the flax plant to create the first ever fabric. However, it was probably the Egyptians who first organised the industrial production of linen, recognising it as a noble fabric - early production methods are shown on ancient hieroglyphics across Egypt. Linen became a luxury worn by royal households and other aristocracy in both life and death - around 1000 metres of fine linen would have been wrapped around Egyptian kings as part of the mummifying process.
Linen probably came to Ireland in early Christian times, and St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, is said to be buried in a shroud of Irish Linen. The production of Irish Linen continued through the Middle Ages, but it was not until the 17th Century that the industry started to develop in any structured way, initially under the guidance of the Earl of Stafford and the Duke of Ormonde.
In the late 17th Century, the Huguenots, who had recently fled from France to Ireland, added their expert textile skills to the already well-established Irish Linen industry, and the fame and reputation of Irish Linen flourished. The industry was concentrated in the north of Ireland, particularly in the area of land between the two great rivers of the north, the Bann and the Lagan. This area is known today as The Linen Homelands.
Linen was the focus for the Industrial Revolution in the north of Ireland, with the Province's engineering, trade and infrastructure developed around the requirements of the industry. In the 20th Century, linen played a vital role in both World Wars. Rope, net, twine, hosepipes, sailcloth, canvas, blackout sheets, tents and aeroplane wing sealants were all made from Irish Linen. After World War Two, synthetic fibres replaced linen in many of these heavy industrial products.
However, despite the interest in man-made consumer fabrics such as nylon and polyester in the '60's and '70's and the new microfibres of the '90's, Irish Linen is a truly contemporary fabric. It can be blended with the man-mades such as Tencel and Lycra, finished to give it a fresh feel and improve wash and care performance or kept in its purest white or natural colour and form. The Irish Linen industry is proud of rich heritage, and never loses sight of the craftsmanship, which has been developed over generations.
For an historical film showing the Irish linen processes in the early 20th century please click here.
For a more comprehensive history of Irish linen please click here
If you require historical information about Irish linen or old Irish linen companies or the industry. It is probably best to contact the Irish Linen Centre & Lisburn Museum.