Credit: Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/SSPL via Getty Images

Historical Insights The Linen Industry in Northern Ireland

Yards and yards of linen were spread out behind factories every day to bleach in the sun, making them as white as possible. 1850, Chapelizod, Ireland. Credit: Science & Society Picture Library/SSPL/SSPL via Getty Images

The Linen Industry in Northern Ireland

During the Industrial Revolution in Northern Ireland, flax linen was one of the principle industries, employing thousands of Irish men, women, and children.

As the Industrial Revolution chugged on through the late 1800s, Irish flax linen mills employed thousands of Northern Irish men, women, and children. From sun up till sun down, the workers spun and wove the flax into beautiful linen that was sold throughout the country and the world. The mills used a “wet spinning” technique that kept the factories hot and humid. Workers often went barefoot to avoid slipping. At the end of a 12-hour workday, workers left the factories soaked with water and sweat, stepping into the cool night air. Wages were low and injuries and illness were common among factory workers, but, in 1871, the city of Belfast still boasted over 43,000 workers in the 78 mills that were built nearby. Families moved into towns near the flax mills every year to find employment as factory after factory was built in Northern Ireland. With a strong tradition of flax linen dating from the 6th century, Irish linen was in demand around the world, increasing the number of factories, and with it the number of people employed by the huge industry in Northern Ireland.