Linen is one of the first fibres known to man and was widely used in ancient Israel, Egypt and Ireland.
In the case of divorce under Brehon Law, 5/6 of the flax crop went to the man but the linen yarn or cloth was split 50:50 between both parties.
In Tudor times, before the Plantation, Ireland was an exporter of linen yarn, not linen cloth.
Because of the expanding British economy, Britain decided in 1698 that Ireland would not export wool but linen: 800 million yards per year were needed, 10 million of which came from Ireland. Flax seed came from the US colonies, especially Pennsylvania – some 50/60 ships a year.
The Hugenots who settled near Lisburn grew, spun and weaved linen more efficiently.
By the 1700s, the whole process was household based. The growing of flax through to the finished bleached fabric took a year. The flax was grown in 100 days; then it was harvested, rotted,scutched, combed, spun, beetled and bleached. Cow manure or buttermilk was used in the bleaching process. It was womens’ work until it became a more valuable industry at which point men took over. As the industry grew, the process was broken into different stages which were done by different classes of society. Beetling was the first stage to be mechanised using water harnessed machinery.
Drapers were merchants of cloth. They began buying brown cloth from the farmers and then finished the cloth for market: this is where the money was to be made. The women spinners were poorly paid while the male weavers faired better.
The late 1700s saw the arrival of cotton. Belfast was more of a cotton city than a linen city then.
1785, the Belfast Linen Hall was built.
1820- machine spinning of flax yarn became economical.
1828- the local Mulholland mill was burned down but was rebuilt as a linen mill.
1830- cotton spinning mills of Belfast converted to linen spinning. The linen industry thrived in Belfast because if the U.S. civil war and subsequent shortage of cotton.
1900- Belfast was the linen capital of the world: it produced more than half of the linen being then produced in the world.