Textiles of the World: Irish Linen

Two men reach over the shafts of an industrial loom, tying threads,

Hi Sewcialists, 

I’m Stephen Conway, son of Jim Conway, the founder of Emblem Weavers Irish Linen. My father was a very independent man, setting up his own mill in the 1970’s and going on to build a reputation for producing some of the finest linen on the island of Ireland. 

Irish Linen has a rich heritage. Linen itself is spun from flax a plant (weed) that grows naturally in the northern hemisphere. Flax only needs poor land and rain to thrive, so Ireland was an ideal home. Linen is as old as the bible – some amazing linen artefacts were found in the tombs of the pharaohs. To turn flax into linen yarn took a lot of physical effort. It was steeped in water then broken and beaten (flailed) in a process known as scutching until the fibre is combed (hackling) and spun into yarn.

With the advent of the water mill, many of these processes were standardised to harness the power water. The United Kingdom led the world in industrial innovation in the steam age, and by the late 1860s, the linen mills of Northern Ireland were supplying millions of yards of linen to every corner of the British Empire.

Today, it’s a different story. There are only about eight or nine mills that can call themselves Irish Linen producers and members of the Irish Linen Guild. The Guild was founded in 1928 to promote the quality standards of Irish Linen. (https://irishlinen.co.uk)

The Use of Linen

Bedsheets were traditionally made from linen as the fabric gets stronger when wet. Linen sheets were rigorously washed and mangled without risk of damage. Linen can whiten in the sun, so sheets were left to dry on the grass. Linen is an ideal dressing for cuts and wounds as it has no lint or loose fibres. It’s also hydrophilic, meaning that it absorbs and expands to hold liquid. It has low insulation properties, so it was used to cover patients with fever.

The low insulating characteristic also makes linen ideal for summer/hot climate clothing. Outdoor and warm weather workwear influenced the type of clothes made from linen, and to this day linen is associated with more casual wear. Linen is less elastic than other spun fibre, so with very little give, clothes made from linen are less figure-hugging. Low stretch means linen retains creases, again a characteristic associated with the fabric’s casual image. 

A young woman stands in a studio setting. She wears a green linen dress and holds a  shade card with several  samples of linen swatches in different shades of green.

Linen’s future

The last 20 years have seen sportswear and Fast Fashion grow to be the most dominant influences on what people wear. With this, the demand for cotton has exploded. Cotton’s environmental credentials are weak. It requires high levels of pesticides and water, which results in man-made irrigation. Many areas of the Middle East, Turkey and the USA have seen high volume cotton farming destroy large areas of arable land.

Linen, by contrast, has some of the lowest use of pesticides in farming, and only needs moderate rainfall to thrive. Younger consumers are returning to linen, not only for its low impact on the environment but for its longevity – as linen gets softer and more attractive the more you use it.

At Emblem Weavers, we are working with ever more small-scale independent Irish fashion and homeware brands. They are looking for a small batch local product, and we are happy to be part of linen’s next chapter.

A group of female models walk onto the runway,  surrounding  the fashion designer Paul Costelloe at a fashion show. The models and audience applaud.
Paul Costelloe and models on the catwalk.

The Conway family lives and works in Wexford, Republic of Ireland and is at the forefront of Irish Linen manufacturing business with emblem weavers. You can find out more about them @emblemweavers in IG or at  www.emblemweavers.com