Flax spinning back to the future

Allow me to share a little yarn with you about how I came to be the proud owner of this delightful linen runner with more than a little help from Flax Mill’s owners, Hermann and Marion Baur.

Table runner made in Irish Linen, 4′ in length

A little of my own background is first necessary to act as the warp upon which this little tale is woven. My name is Tiernan Stuart, though I also answer to Webmaster and Web Bastler (Bastler is German for tinkerer) here at the Flax Mill. My main duty is to ensure the website is always up and running, a job helped by a sojourn as a software engineer and a passion for flax and linen,  first awakened back in the mid-nineties as a fresh-faced research student, eager to elicit new understanding from the secretive and elusive flax fibre. My first mentor Fred Sloan, pioneer of the Linron process for manufacturing linen blends, set me the task of discovering the formula for crease-proofing linen, possibly one of the oldest problems in the world still yet to be solved. I then joined a multidisciplinary team to tackle the thorny issue of improving the excellent Mackies’ Linmack 5 spinning machine, a task sadly cut short by the demise of the company itself.

Spinning on the Linmack 5 ‘pony’ frame

After a stint in Germany, funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to work with Professor Kessler on flax and hemp quality analysis, I was lucky to land a research post with Professor Sharma at Queens University Belfast, the author of the famous ‘Big Green Book’, “The Biology and Processing of Flax”: a copy of this very informative work is accessible through The Flax Mill library on request. Research there ranged from the the practical, studying flax-reinforced composites, through to the theoretical, examining the mechanism by which flax fibre so efficiently moves moisture along its length. Sadly funding ran out for the work and I was forced to retrain in computer programming in order to earn my keep.

Thankfully, after discovering the Flax Mill, my newfound software skills were put to good use promoting the cause of Irish Linen. Marion’s prodigious talents with the weaving frame inspired me to abandon my industrially influenced roots and adopt the artisan’s approach. I invested in a Louët S10C spinning wheel with the aim of tackling a vital missing link in Irish Linen production today, the making of yarn.

Louët S10C spinning wheel with bespoke Scotch tension

My early attempts were fraught with error though eventually, with helpful guidance from expert spinner Lorna Shannon, proprietor of Crann+Caora, I managed to spin something that vaguely resembled the yarns I had once produced on the Linmack pony frame. On my next visit to The Mill, I brought my yarn along for Hermann and Marion to cast their expert eye over. Marion whisked my improvised bobbin off the table with a gleam in her eye and a promise that a use could be found for my homespun efforts. On my return a few weeks later, she presented me with the runner shown above, a truly elegant setting to exhibit my humble efforts. For warp and weft, she used a combination of now rare Irish machine-spun yarns, detailed in the caption of the image below, whose manufacturers have long since passed into the history books.

Threads for the job from left to right – warp: 18s semi-bleached yarn spun by Andrews of Comber; borders: hand-spun natural by Tiernan Stuart; weft: 55s (4 threads) spun by Herdmans (all Irish flax)

Marion’s skill managed to work wonders with my yarn as can be seen in a close-up of the runner’s decoration below.

Chevron pattern using the hand-spun yarn

The runner now occupies pride of place on the dining room table as a reminder that the days of Irish Linen are far from over.

A Journey in Linen

In these days when many people feel restricted in their travels, some are even told to stay at home (that’s if they have one, I suppose), I found it fascinating to observe and put to paper the journeys of a machine.

A few years ago – we still operated our textile stall at the Belfast market then – a man from Ballymena approached me there. He told me the story of his father’s weaving loom. The fly – shuttle hand operated loom was used to produce “piece work” for “the big place”.

Like many linen towns, Ballymena had a large weaving mill, “Phoenix Weaving”. The partly water-powered and highly mechanised factory ran well over 300 power – looms and manufactured large quantities of Irish Linen. One of the earlier ones to close down, Phoenix is almost forgotten about nowadays. If anyone ever feels like reading through some of their wages – books, production day – books, cloth sales records etc., we have quite a few of them here in our textile – library.

The mill kept hand – loom – weavers in work, most of them working at their own homes. Despite the speed of the power – looms, the hand operated machines had (and have) their special qualities: High quality, short runs and bespoke fabric are easier done on them plus the operators are usually well trained and skilful. This kind of “home-work” still exists in the tweed-weaving of Donegal today.

Back to the Ballymena – loom, the man was looking for a home for it, we didn’t like the thought of it going to waste and told him, we’d come to see it soon.

No need to do this – the loom landed at Flax Mill a few weeks later. Dismantled into every bit, the gables were stripped onto the roof of an estate car, all the other parts inside – the first leg of the loom’s journey ended in Derrylane.

It turned out to be quite a sophisticated piece of kit:

48-inch weaving width (very wide for the time it was made), a top – hung fly – shuttle device with extraordinarily large shuttle boxes, it would have been pretty much “top of the range” when it was made by Youngs of Gallowshields I Scotland. It seemed complete, wooden parts and especially the gables strong and we put it into storage.

Several weavers and other textile crafters had a good look at it but nobody seemed confident enough to “go for it”.

We were contemplating restoration ourselves and putting it into the mill. At the same time, befriended master – spinner and weaver Lorna Shannon – many readers of this story know her as secretary of the Ulster Guild of Spinners, Weavers and Dyers – joined the maker’s house at the Designery in Bushmills.

She moved her own – much smaller – loom to the outlet which unfortunately had to close for a while due to the horrible circumstances caused by the virus epidemic. Lorna had measured the space she gained at her own property and decided the “big lady” would just fit in.

We assured her that Flax Mill was not closing (we haven’t done so for one day) and she landed with husband Peter and a sizeable trailer behind the car.

The loom was loaded and as they had moved up the lane a little sadness came over me – the old machine had gone on the second leg of its journey and would probably not come back here.

Conclusions which I think are important in those times:

  • The loom’s journey took it from Ballymena to Derrylane and now to Cloughmills (where Lorna resides) which is just a few miles from its old home. Good to see it going “back to work” where it had operated for a long time!
  • No money changed hands during the operation. The man who brought the loom didn’t want any, loved the thought of it finding a home. We didn’t have to pay for it so we didn’t have to charge Lorna, were delighted to see it going back to work. Marion like to sign letters “Love over Gold” – true if you give it a try, isn’t it?
  • Finally: The “powers to be” told people during the time when the loom undertook its journey “…go to work only if essential…” or so. The loom will soon make fabric again (see pictures): Quiet, no carbon footprint, no long journeys for the products…Could you get it more essential – given the state of the planet??

Hermann Glaser-Baur

Flax blooms again in Belfast

Talented designer and Friend of the Mill, Deborah Toner, has nurtured flax in her back garden amidst the hustle and bustle of modern Belfast. Let’s hope this augurs the return of ‘the rippling sea of blue’ along the banks of The Lagan, once seen of old. Before exploring Deborah’s design expertise at her website , take a moment to enjoy the photos of the beautiful and delicate flax flowers she has shared with us.

 

Hemp with a natural tint

We’re excited to share some photos of a recent project, “Cannabis Tinctoria – We see colours”, from a past colleague and weaver here at the Flax Mill, Miriam Johnston. The photos record her investigation of transforming hemp yarn and fabric with a variety of natural dyes to produce stunning results! We’re delighted that she will be here with us to demonstrate her weaving skills at Open Day 2019.

A tragic story woven in Irish Linen

Friend of the mill Lorraine Maguire has brought the fascinating story told in the BBC article “Stitching thoughts on a life cut short” to my attention. Belfast writer and accomplished seamstress Heather Richardson tells the tragic tale of her aunt, Kathleen Hutchinson, who died in an accident near her home, Kilrea, one late December evening in 1939 while cycling home from Clark’s linen mill. She had just recently begun her employment as a typist at the tender age of 15.

Heather chose Irish Linen from Clark’s as the medium to tell her aunt’s story and created a stunning dress that her aunt may have worn on her 21st birthday. Heather then stitched and printed the dress with thoughts and images around Kathleen’s life and has therewith created a fitting document to honour Kathleen’s tragically short life. Please click on the link to learn more on this amazing story and for images of this incredible testament written in textiles!

Love Linen

silk screen print on linen woven by Flax Mill, print by Charlotte Krone

Linen is the aristocrat of textiles

Strong as steel

Delicate as silk

And with an appearance as varied and attractive as an Irish landscape

It is not surprising that is has been preferred

By people of good taste for well over 4000 years

(Wallace Clark)