Factory-Based Textile Manufacture

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Factory-Based Textile Manufacture

By 1725 linen bleaching was too risky and time-consuming to be performed by household women. Capitalists—assisted by the 72 members of the Trustees of the Linen and Hempen Manufacturers of Ireland, which enforced existing laws and made efforts to extend and improve the industry—made significant timesaving innovations, including harnessing water power and introducing washmills, rubbing boards (1730s), beetling engines (1727), and vitriol (1756). By mid-century, linen bleachers were centralizing and reorganizing linen production along capitalist lines. However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries innovation slowed, and production processes in these small family-owned firms changed little. Although working conditions in bleach-greens were relatively healthy, skill, strength, and long hours were required of the predominantly male labor force.

The Linen Board similarly encouraged the use of water-driven machinery in scutch mills, which multiplied in number and importance in the eighteenth century. By 1800 most northeastern parishes had a scutch mill. Scutch mills were simple, cheap, and efficient, with a breastshot waterwheel driving a horizontal shaft along which scutching stocks for flax and targing stocks for tow or shorter fibers were arranged. In seasonal scutch mills wages were low and working conditions were dusty and dangerous.

By the 1770s political and economic factors favored the mechanization of linen's rival fabric—cotton. The semiautonomous Irish parliament acted to encourage and protect cotton manufacture. Thereafter, the cotton industry, with its dependence on waterpower, coal-driven steam power, machinery, imported raw materials, and cheap labor, ushered industrial capitalism into Ulster's Lagan Valley. Cotton-yarn spinning required changes in the organization of production and considerable fixed capital investment. Muslin weavers earned higher wages than linen weavers, encouraging many to change jobs.

The cotton industry in Ireland was not the same as in England, due to Ireland's colonial status. In Ireland, cotton spinning did not revolutionize weaving, but instead intensified the decentralized system of putting-out mill-spun yarn by manufacturers to handloom weavers. (The putting-out system, a transitional stage in the development of capitalism, was characterized by manufacturers' supplying raw materials and marketing finished products. Producers, who owned the means of production, controlled the work process.) Irish muslin weavers earned lower wages than their English counterparts, inhibiting technological innovation, and young female workers in the dusty Belfast mills earned lower wages than workers in Lancashire. Finally, when the expanding Irish cotton industry posed a competitive threat, the English state periodically dumped cheaper English yarn and cloth in Ireland.

By the 1820s and 1830s Belfast cotton spinners could not compete, so they turned to spinning flax. Competition and innovation in the cotton industry forced similar technological changes in the linen industry. Flax, however, was far more difficult to process than cotton wool. Flax-spinning machinery capable of spinning coarse yarn had been patented in England in 1789. The coarse-linen trade was thereby captured by England and Scotland, leaving Ireland to concentrate on fine linen yarn. Then in 1825, the Englishman James Kay invented the wet-spinning process, enabling fine counts of yarn to be spun more cheaply. This threatened the future of Ireland's fine-yarn specialization. When the regulation affecting the importation of British and foreign yarn was abolished, the number of yarn-spinning mills in Ireland multiplied. The labor force in flax-spinning mills was predominantly young and female. Persistently unhealthy working conditions—dust in the preparing processes and intense heat in wet-spinning rooms—damaged the health of workers.

Although the mechanization of spinning fundamentally changed the organization of linen production, the centralization of linen weaving was an uneven century-long process. By the 1840s some handloom weavers were reluctantly working for manufacturers in shops or factories where they lost their independence and earned low piece wages. The powerloom was more slowly adopted in Ireland than in Britain because of Ireland's lower labor costs and technological problems in weaving fine-linen cloth. Before the Great Famine the low cost associated with the putting-out system inhibited innovation. After the famine the rising costs of labor and yarn and competition from powerloom weavers in Britain generated the incentive for innovation. Investment in powerlooms increased dramatically during the linen boom years of the 1860s and 1870s when the "cotton famine" induced by the U.S. Civil War stimulated demand for alternative fabrics. New flaxspinning mills and weaving factories multiplied rapidly. The labor in powerloom factories was predominantly female, and working conditions were persistently poor because of dust, moist heat, and intense noise. A new division of labor between hand- and powerloom production of linen emerged by the 1880s, with fine-linen cloth being produced on handlooms into the twentieth century.

The making-up end of textile production consisted of producing and decorating linen and cotton household articles, handkerchiefs, and apparel, and decorating these by embroidery and sewing. Making-up work entailed an intricate division of labor between tasks performed in factories and those carried out in homes. Only three processes—punch hemstitching, Swiss embroidery, and machine spoking—were always performed in factories. Swiss-embroidery machines operated by one skilled man with three female assistants dominated the higher end of the hemstitching trade by the 1860s. Most other processes, including hemming, and sewing shirts, collars, and ladies undergarments, were performed both inside and outside factories, at the discretion of the employer. Although female workers in sewing factories earned piece rates similar to those of other textile workers, cleaner and quieter working conditions resulted in their higher status.

Until World War I the north of Ireland was the world's largest producer of linen. Thereafter, the industry faced myriad problems, including a shortage of sources of flax, the dominance of private family ownership, internecine disputes among the sectors, protection in overseas markets, rival fabrics, lower labor costs elsewhere, and inadequate marketing and research. The need for modernization was particularly acute. Although flax spinning and weaving were classified as dangerous trades in 1905, by 1948 no new flax mills had been built for more than forty years, and in many plants the average age of machinery was forty or fifty years. The Re-Equipment of Industry Act (1951) subsidized the modernization of machinery and buildings. Still, the decline of the linen industry continued, with only twenty firms remaining by 1980. The few firms that survive today have done so by adopting new strategies of production and marketing, by cooperation among manufacturers, and through government investment in research and development. New spinning machinery was developed, computerized damask looms currently produce cloth cleanly and efficiently, and fashion designers creatively use Irish linen.

Between 1939 and 1951 the shortage of flax and decreased demand for linen forced northern Irish manufacturers to invest in rayon staple fabrics. The transition to rayon after 1945 was encouraged by government assistance, since rayon staple required the installation of new equipment and at times new factories. Existing wet-spinning frames and powerlooms in linen plants were unsuitable for rayon production, which required dry processing and greater regularity in weaving. Despite the early success of the rayon industry, it was vulnerable, controlled from firms outside Northern Ireland, and ultimately short-lived, collapsing in the1980s.

SEE ALSO Belfast; Industrialization; Industry since 1920; Rural Industry; Women and Children in the Industrial Workforce


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Marilyn Cohen