Spinning wheel Copyrighted image Credit: Production team

The linen trade played a pivotal role in the social and economic development of Belfast. The manufacture of linen was the catalyst that allowed it to grow from a town into the region's pre-eminent city. It grew most rapidly during the 1860s – by the end of the 19th century Belfast was the linen capital of the world.

Belfast linen: row of shirts Copyrighted image Credit: Production team Shirts hanging on rack Copyrighted image Credit: Production team

During the 18th and early 19th centuries, linen production in Ireland was a domestic industry on the farm. Flax was harvested and scutched (a process which made flax more fibrous), and then the women in the household spun it into yarn which was woven into linen cloth and taken for sale at the local market town. These farms were a common feature of the north of Ireland in the early nineteenth century.

Spinning wheel Copyrighted image Credit: Production team

At this time the wealth of the linen trade was in the hands of drapers and bleachers who expended their capital through the purchase of the raw, brown linens, which were then bleached over a period of six months. The finished white cloth was sold on later. In 1728 the Linen Board built a White Linen Hall in Dublin where the bleached linens were sold for export.

Linen manufacture was so widespread in Ulster that eventually the northern bleachers built their own White Linen Hall in Belfast, so they could deal direct with English traders. The port of Belfast quickly came to dominate linen cloth exports.

Technical innovations in cotton spinning meant that by the end of the eighteenth century, cotton could be produced much more cheaply than linen. By 1811 the cotton industry employed over 50,000 people in and around Belfast. The success of cotton spinning inspired inventors to think of ways in which mechanisation could speed up linen production. The brittleness of the flax fibre meant that a new machine had to be invented - the cotton machines simply couldn't be converted.

In 1825, James Kay of Preston invented a method of "wet spinning" which passed the flax through warm water and enabled a much finer yarn to be spun. By the late 1820s several "wet" spinning mills using water-power had been built in Ulster. By 1850 there were 62 mills in the region, employing 19,000 workers and by 1871 there were 78 mills with a workforce of 43,000.

Loom Copyrighted image Credit: Production team

People flocked into Belfast to work in the new spinning mills. Belfast more than doubled in size between 1841 and 1871 and its population doubled again between 1871 and 1901.

The building of linen warehouses and mills dramatically altered the shape and size of Belfast. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, the southern-most tip of the city was located where the City Hall stands today. It was erected on the site of the old White Linen Hall which was right on the periphery of the town when it was first built. It was a key building, because it became the focus of social and economic activity in the town. The bulk of linen manufacture carried on in the west of the city but small factories which made up the linen into finished goods were located close to the White Linen Hall site, as were linen warehouses and administrative offices.

Belfast outstripped Dublin in terms of population size by 1891, largely due to the success of its linen industry.

Take it further

The Story of Irish Linen
Brenda Collins (An Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum Publication, 1994)
Belfast: The Making of a City
J C Beckett.

Weblinks

Irish Linen Guild

Irish Linen Centre and Lisburn Museum

Interested in finding more out? Social sciences with The Open University.

With thanks to:

Richard Gibson – Smyth and Gibson, Retailers

Richard Gibson Copyrighted image Credit: Production team

Bill Crawford – Local Historian

Bill Crawford Copyrighted image Credit: Production team

Brian Mackay – Irish Linen Centre

Brian Mackay Copyrighted image Credit: Production team