Linen is a yarn or fabric which is today mostly made from the cultivated flax plant, named Linum usitissimum. This domesticated species is believed to have been developed during cultivation. It is a cellulosic plant fibre, or bast fibre, and it forms the fibrous bundles in the inner bark of the stems of the plant. The plant is an annual that grows to a height of about a metre and the fibres run the entire length of the stem and help hold it upright.
The fibre strands are normally released from the cellular and woody stem tissue by a process known as retting (controlled rotting). In Ireland this was traditionally done in water, rivers, ponds or retting dams. The tough fibres remain after the soft woody tissue is rotted.
A lot has been written about the history of Irish Linen, and a good account can be found on the website of a sister company of John England. Ireland’s involvement with linen goes back a very long way and it can never really be certain how it first came to the island. In the 19th and early 20th centuries linen was a very great industry, and much of the city of Belfast and its hinterland relied on linen for its development. So much so that Belfast gained the nickname of ‘Linenopolis’ in the 19th century.
In the latter part of the 20th century sales of the more mass produced Irish linen products came under pressure from cheaper to produce cotton, and then the introduction of man-made and synthetic fibres.
In more recent times the pressure was from fabrics and products which were massed produced in low cost countries. Where low wages and material costs were used to squeeze Irish linen producers on price. This put many of them out of business.
Irish linen fought back, its genuinely unique qualities of comfort, drape and its distinctive appearance kept it a niche in the luxury market, and its unique physical properties maintained its use in the clothing market and industrial textiles. These advantages were well backed up by the confirmed quality, and the confidence and equity established in the Irish linen brand. The producers that remained stopped trying to compete on price alone and tried to give their customers an excellent fast service, and more what they wanted in the way of quality, design, and order quantities.
In the latter part of the 20th century there were increased efforts to promote linen to the apparel trade. At this time there was a growing reaction against the synthetic fibres, as they had been probably over used for apparel in the 1960’s. Natural products had been more and more replaced by synthetic substitutes which in spite of their attractive appearance and functionality carried the difficulty of disposal and long term damage to the environment. As well as the comfort issues, not present with natural fabrics. In the 1970’s the promotional work started to pay dividends, and by the late 1980’s linen was in general use in the top of the range apparel in most countries in the developed world. Linen in apparel was by now far outstripping its traditional household textiles and industrial sectors.
Similarly, in the early 21st century there is a growing reaction against the mass importation of fabrics and products from low cost countries. This seems to be in part due to dissatisfaction with the modern emphasis on mass-production, an increasing need by buyers to know the ‘green’, as well as ethical credentials of what they are buying, and people tiring of today’s cultural globalisation and homogenization. There is a greater appreciation for unique products, with a design story, which express individual cultures and heritages, and which mean more than simple materialism.
Companies such as John England carved out a niche by creative and innovative design backed up by excellent service, quality, flexibility, and stock holding. It got to know its customers and the market and learned how to give them what they wanted; often before they knew themselves what they needed.
It may be a smaller industry, but Irish linen is not a part of history, it is still woven and finished today in the same traditional areas, and by descendants of those who have worked in the industry, and passed down skills, that have been learned over many hundreds of years.
“There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply. The person who buys on price alone is this man’s lawful prey.”