Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life

#1Year1Outfit – Local Linen?

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For my last garment for the #1Year1Outfit challenge I have decided to make a pair of linen trousers. I’m already most of the way through this make. My previous post was about how I modified the trousers to include a button – rather than a zip front fly closure. Here, I thought I’d share some of my research on linen as a textile, its history and how I sourced my fabric.

Linen fabric feels cool to the touch and it is apparently very comfortable to wear in hot weather. This is because linen fabric can absorb a fair amount of moisture without feeling unpleasantly damp to the skin, unlike cotton. I thought that these trousers could be teamed with the Shibori-dyed Myla tank created for the #1Year1Outfit as a perfect combination for a summer’s day.

Generally, my wardrobe is full of lots of cotton textiles and I wondered why linen is such an overlooked fabric. Linen, in comparison to cotton, is quite expensive. It is apparently rather laborious to manufacture; flax thread is not elastic and it is difficult to weave without breaking threads.  This poor elasticity also explains why it wrinkles so easily.

Linen is a textile made from the fibres of the flax plant. Linen textiles appear to be some of the oldest in the world; their history goes back many thousands of years. Dyed flax fibres found in a prehistoric cave in Georgia dating back thirty-six thousand years suggest the use of woven linen fabrics from wild flax by ancient people. Textiles from cultivated flax plants have been around for more than 4,000 years. Linen fabric has been used for table coverings, bed coverings and clothing for centuries.

Flax fibres

Flax fibres

Linen production was widespread across the country in the past, and was frequently carried out as a local craft providing sufficient textiles to meet local needs.

In the South West of the UK, flax was grown in Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset. There were linen-drapers in Salisbury, Wiltshire in 1306, and it is said that the linen-weaving was the oldest craft in the city. [1] There is  documentary evidence for the growth and manufacture of flax in Bridport, Dorset in the reign of King John in 1211, although the industry probably goes back well before this. The damp, mild and sheltered valleys of Dorset with their light loam soils were ideal for the growing of flax.  The principal use for flax in Bridport was the manufacture of ropes, nets, twine and sailcloth for the fishing industry, but linen was also produced for garments. Much of the flax used for linen clothing (in particular undergarments) would have been spun and woven by women in the home on a domestic basis. [3]

In the 18th century Mere and Hindon in Wiltshire formed the north-east point of an industry which was widespread in Dorset and East Somerset. The only linen recorded to be made in these places was coarse— dowlas, bed-ticking, and cheese cloth. The weft of the ticking was generally of local flax, but, in the 18th century, the warp was of yarn imported from Hamburg. Sometimes flax was also transported but only when the local crop was likely to fail. [1]

Linen_Flax Mill

Picture Credit: Queed Mill, Dorset (Dress & Textiles, Rachel Worth)

In Dorset, the manufacture of linen flourished in the village of Bourton in the 18th century. Bourton parish, although in Dorset, lies in the area of the Wiltshire and Somerset textile industry. Again, yarn was imported from Holland to supplement flax that was locally grown and spun. By the end of the 18th century weaving was the main occupation of the community. At first the work was done on hand-looms in the scattered cottages. The first mill was established in 1720 and other mills were built early in the 19th century, some of them drawing power from the River Stour. [2] The streams of the area were also used for the “retting” process. This involves soaking the flax stalks in water to rot away the woody core and dissolve the gum so that the fibres can be loosened and pulled away. [3]

Retting

Picture credit: Retting at Slape Mills, Dorset (Dress & Textiles, Rachel Worth)

In Bourton, a fabric known as winsey-wolsey. This fabric is a rough cloth made of a linen warp and woolen weft. Being a mixture of fibres it was less expensive and was used for garments such as aprons worn by working people. [3]

In the late 19th century the industry declined. Some looms are said to have lingered in Mere (Wiltshire), but in 1880 the number employed in the industry had dropped to 16 according to the census returns, and the industry must have died out very shortly afterwards. [1] A similar story is documented in Bourton, where linen production declined in the later half of the 19th century. [2]

Competition from the textile industry in the North, the expense of linen and the expansion and industrialisation of the cotton industry were all factors that led to the decline of the linen industry. [3]

Further afield, there is a long history of the production of linen in Ireland. Linen manufacture was an important industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Northern Ireland practically every town and village had a mill or a factory. Belfast was such an important producer of linen during the Victorian era that it became known as Linenopolis.

According to the Irish Linen Mills website, by 1921 there were almost one million spindles and 37,000 looms, with over 70,000 directly employed, representing 40% of the registered working population, with closer to 100,000 people dependent on the linen industry. At end of the 20th century only 10 significant companies, at most, remained employing 4,000 people.

Sadly, although I found much evidence of a local linen industry in the South West in the past, I couldn’t find a local supplier still in existence today. I sourced my linen from John England, which is based in Banbridge, Co Down. I was saddened to find they are, according to their website “the last jacquard linen weavers in Ireland”.

I wasn’t sure which fabric to go for, so at first I just requested a sample and they sent me a lovely swatches of the entire Glyde fabric range.

John England swatches

The Glyde range is a trouser and skirt weight fabric. I settled for the natural, undyed fabric (as this is for #1Year1Outfit). The site sells either fabric that has not been pre-washed or fabric that has been “relaxed” or pre-washed. The fabric was actually quite stiff when I received it in the post, but after pre-washing it does become much softer.

My only problem is that there are some sharp folds from where the fabric was folded in the post and I haven’t yet managed to eradicate them. Do you have any tips for ironing linen to ease out these creases?

Bibliography

[1] Wiltshire on the British History website (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/wilts/vol4/pp148-182#h3-0006)

[2] Dorset on the British History website (http://www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/dorset/vol4/pp3-6)

[3] Discover Dorset: Dress & Textiles (Rachel Worth)

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Author: steelyseamstress

Sewing a new wardrobe

4 thoughts on “#1Year1Outfit – Local Linen?

  1. Fascinating & I can’t wait to see the result. I’m very tempted by the bright pink linen:)

  2. Pingback: #1year1outfit 2015 Europe Finale | this is moonlight

  3. Hello, Is it possible to contact you via email (thisismoonlightsewing (at) gmail,com or IG? I need to ask your permission for something.

  4. Pingback: #1year1outfit 2015 Europe Finale – this is moonlight

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