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

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