What is linen?
Sometimes we’re asked what linen is. Although in the past everyone knew what it was there is now some confusion. Linen was once so common it became the term for household sheets, pillowcases, tablecloths, etc. This term has stuck even though today in most cases these items are made from cotton or polyester/cotton. Now it is a generic term for these household items.
Real linen is a fibre in its own right. 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 Netherland it is warmer, therefore dew retting in the fields could take place.
Flax is the raw material for linen and grows naturally. Linen is the result of a human manufacturing process which makes spun yarn, and woven fabric, etc. from flax.
History of Irish Linen
There is a lot written about the history of Irish Linen, and a good account is 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 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. 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. Trying to compete solely on price put many long-established companies out of business.
Irish linen fought back. By using high quality materials it’s 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 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 give their customers a more sustainable and faster local service, and more of what they wanted in the way of quality, on-trend colours, top quality design, and order quantities.
The 20th Century
In the latter part of the 20th century efforts increased 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 is in part due to dissatisfaction with the modern emphasis on mass-production. As well as an increasing needs of buyers to know the ‘green’, as well as ethical credentials of what they are buying. People are tiring of today’s cultural globalization and homogenization. There is a greater appreciation for unique products. These may carry a design story, which express individual cultures and heritages, and which means more than simple materialism.
Companies such as John England carved out a niche by creative and innovative design. Supported by excellent service, quality and flexibility, backed by a stock holding of on-trend fabrics and colours. They got to know their customers, and the market and learned how to give them what they wanted; often before they knew themselves.
It is 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, 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.”