Until the introduction of cotton in the late eighteenth century, wool and linen were the raw materials from which cloth was woven in Ireland. For more than a century, skilled craftsmen were concentrated in Dublin and the country towns under the patronage of local landowners, but in the countryside many people prepared the raw materials, spun yarn, wove coarse cloths, and sold them in local fairs to supplement their family incomes. The woollen industry in its long history in the south of the country from Kilkenny to Waterford and Bandon had developed cloths to suit local markets, but the success of the linen industry in Ulster was due to increasing demand from England and its colonies.
The ready supply of flax, a traditional crop in Ireland, was exploited by immigrants from Britain during the plantation of Ulster in the seventeenth century. Several landlords encouraged their tenants to spin and weave linen in their cottages and assisted in marketing the products. Some merchants carried their linen to market in Dublin, and its improving quality attracted attention even in London. The King's and Queen's Corporation for the Linen Manufacture in England, incorporated in 1690, promoted a subsidiary company in Ireland in 1692. An employee, George Stead of Lisburn, informed the Board of Trade and Plantations in 1697 that there were then from 500 to 1,000 looms working commercially in the counties of Down, Antrim, Armagh, Tyrone, and Londonderry. To promote the industry in Ireland, the London government encouraged a Huguenot, Louis Crommelin, to establish a colony in Lisburn in 1698 and made him Overseer of the Royal Linen Manufacture. Because his project had limited success, however, the Dublin parliament in 1711 set up the Board of Trustees of the Linen and Hempen Manufactures to regulate and supervise the development of the industry. Especially in its early years it played an important role by developing contacts in London and by employing craftsmen to copy not only patterns and qualities of European cloths then fashionable in London, but also techniques for bleaching and finishing the linen webs. In 1728 the trustees established a White Linen Hall in Dublin to accommodate the commerce in linens with visiting English merchants.
By 1730 Ulster linen was competing successfully with continental linens on the London market. In that decade it strengthened its grip further by reducing the cost of bleaching when its bleachers adapted for linen the processes used in the tuck mills for finishing woollen cloths. Water power was harnessed to drive the washmills, rubbing-boards, and beetling engines in their bleachmills. The temperate climate of eastern Ulster provided lakes and rivers in the hills with a regular supply of water during the summer bleaching season as well as power to drive scutch mills every autumn for separating the fiber from the woody sheath of the flax plant. The bleachers were entrepreneurs, quick to adopt chemicals for bleaching by importing sulphuric acid (oil of vitriol) and barilla ash. Fierce competition led them to slash the bleaching time, increase the throughput of webs, and cut their overheads to reduce the cost of bleaching, and smaller concerns were forced out of business.
With growing confidence the bleachers began to take over the direction of the industry. In Ulster the marketing of domestically manufactured linens had grafted itself onto the traditional pattern of markets and fairs. A 1719 act had stipulated that all linen cloth and yarn had to be sold publicly in open markets or at lawful fairs, and had appointed lappers to inspect the finished linen cloths and stamp them as a guarantee of their quality. For several decades, however, the enforcement of these laws was opposed by the weavers, who viewed it as a plot to enslave them, until in 1764 Parliament passed a fresh act for the regulation of the trade. The Linen Board appointed sealmasters to inspect and stamp the brown (unbleached) linens brought in by the weavers before the commencement of each market. Although these brown sealmasters were selected from among the weavers themselves, individuals were liable to summary dismissal for failing to enforce the act. The bleachers appreciated this measure of quality control because it enabled them to send their linendrapers on circuit through the weekly markets in the provincial towns to purchase the variety of linen webs required for the English and American markets. In 1782 they asserted themselves by rejecting new regulations introduced by the board. This independence they consolidated by opening two new white-linen halls, in Belfast and Newry.
Great quantities of both linen and wool were spun by country people to supplement the incomes of their families. On the periphery of the Ulster linen-weaving counties were regions where women spun linen yarn. Men known as "grey yarn jobbers" carried some of it to the weaving districts in east Ulster, but much was exported either from the east coast through Dublin and Drogheda or from the north coast through Londonderry, which itself sent more than 10,000 hundredweights per annum in the 1760s to Lancashire. This same decade saw exports of woollen yarn for the English market from Cork and west Leinster peak at 150,000 stones per annum. Afterward, exports of worsted yarn from Ireland declined rapidly as its price rose. Nevertheless, during the 1760s as many as 60,000 women may have been employed by the southern clothiers in spinning wool for the market.
Both the linen and woollen industries were affected after 1770 by the rapid growth of the cotton industry, which was more profitable than either of them. Since the newer industry relied on imports of cotton wool into Dublin, Cork, and Belfast, cotton-spinning mills were built there and the yarn put out to weavers. Key individuals in the Cork wool-spinning trade moved into the cotton industry, which itself failed to grow after the 1820s. By contrast, the survival of the Ulster linen industry was due to the skill of rural weavers in weaving fine-quality linens, notably damasks and cambrics, and to the business skills of the bleachers, who continued to dominate the industry.
SEE ALSO Brewing and Distilling; Factory-Based Textile Manufacture; Industrialization; Markets and Fairs in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries; Transport—Road, Canal, Rail; Women and Children in the Industrial Workforce
Clarkson, Leslie A. "The Carrick-on-Suir Woollen Industry in the Eighteenth Century." Irish Economic and Social History 16 (1989): 23–41.
Crawford, William H. "The Evolution of the Linen Trade before Industrialisation." Irish Economic and Social History 15 (1988): 32–53.
Crawford, William H. The Handloom Weavers and the Ulster Linen Industry. 1994.
Dickson, David J. "Aspects of the Rise and Decline of the Irish Cotton Industry." In Comparative aspects of Scottish and Irish Economic and Social History, 1600–1900, edited by Louis M. Cullen and T. Christopher Smout. 1977.
William H. Crawford