What is linen?
Linen is a yarn or fabric made from the fibre of the cultivated flax plant; Linum usitissimum. Flax is a natural cellulosic plant fibre, or bast fibre. 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.
Growers use a controlled rotting process to release the tougher fibre strands from the cellular and woody stem tissue. This is the retting process. In Ireland the retting process traditionally took place in rivers, ponds or retting dams. In Northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands, where it is warmer, dew retting in the fields could take place.
Flax is the raw material for linen and grows naturally. Linen is created by humans from flax, by spinning or weaving.
History of Irish Linen
Much 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. 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 in Ireland. 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.
During the 20th century sales of mass-produced Irish linen products came under pressure from cheaper to produce cotton. Then the invention of man-made and synthetic fibres compounded the problem.
The main competition has been from fabrics which are massed produced in low-cost countries. These countries use low wages and material costs to squeeze Irish linen producers on price. This put many long established companies 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. Its unique physical properties maintained its use in the clothing market and industrial textiles. These advantages are backed up by confirmed quality, and confidence and equity established in the Irish linen brand. The producers that remained stopped trying to compete on price alone. They tried to give their customers a good faster local service, and more what they wanted in the way of quality, design, and order quantities.
The 20th Century
In the latter part of the 20th century there were increased efforts to promote linen to the fashion and apparel trade. At this time there was a growing reaction against the synthetic fibres. They had probably been overused 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 issues with poorer comfort, when compared with natural fabrics. In the 1970’s the promotional work started to pay dividends. By the late 1980’s linen was in general use in the top of the range fashion and apparel in most countries in the developed world. Linen in apparel was by now far outstripping its traditional household textiles and industrial sectors. This has continued into the 21st century.
The Irish Linen Industry Today
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. As well as an increasing need by buyers to know the ‘green’, as well as ethical credentials of what they are buying. People are tiring of today’s cultural globalisation and homogenisation. There is a greater appreciation for unique products. These may carry 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. This has been backed up by excellent service, quality, flexibility, and stock holding of on-trend fabrics and colours. It got to know its customers and the market and learned how to give them what they wanted; often before they knew themselves.
It may be a smaller industry, but Irish linen is not a part of history. Moreover, it is still woven and finished today in the same traditional areas. Often by descendants of those who have worked in the industry, and passed down skills, that have been learned over hundreds of years.
Irish linen is a brand with a history that says where it comes from. Anyone who says you can get just as good a quality linen in Eastern Europe, or elsewhere. has not seen the double damask woven by John England’s sister company Thomas Ferguson. Nothing compares to top quality Irish linen.
“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.”