Dressing Irish Linen: 1844

(Mrs Daffodil must apologise for the illustrations, which give an entirely unmerited dullness to the lovely sheen of Irish damask. The textile is fiendishly difficult to photograph.)

The linen manufacture and the linen trade being the principal staple and support of Belfast, it therefore claims the greatest attention from the traveller. The linen-hall, a large quadrangular building, which was erected at the end of the last century, is the central point of this trade in Belfast. In this building, almost all the linen of the north of Ireland, destined for exportation, is collected, finished, sorted, and “made up and dressed” for those countries for which it is destined. Every considerable house has here its ware-rooms and stall, and a walk through the hall is therefore very interesting and instructive.

The linen is sent from here to London, to the United States, to British America, to Spain, to the Brazils, and, lately, to China also. For each market there is not only a particular kind of linen which it prefers, but for each there is also a particular mode of packing, and a particular mode of ornamenting the outsides of the packages. London receives the plainest packages: they must have no ornament of any kind, and every decoration of the linen would only awaken in the inhabitants of that city a prejudice against it. On the contrary, they are very particular and extremely nice about the quality of the linen; and London therefore always receives the best qualities in the plainest wrappers. An extensive linen manufacturer, who had the kindness to conduct me through his ware-rooms, told me that his people had once neglected the above rule, and had sent a bale of linen to a London house, each parcel of which bore on it a little ornament; he no longer remembered what the ornament was, but it might probably have been a couple of silver threads drawn through the band that enclosed the piece, or something similar. This immediately brought down a reprimand from the London dealer, who claimed a slight deduction from the price of each piece, on the ground that he had not ventured to offer the pieces thus ornamented to any of his customers until they had been repacked in a different manner. This individual, so sensitive respecting the external decoration of the linen, had at that time a capital of not more than £500; he is now worth £300,000, principally acquired, it is probable, by his accurate knowledge of the humours of his London customers.

The most directly opposed to the London market in this respect, is that of North America, for which the packages can scarcely ever be too highly ornamented. They are tied up with ribbons of various colours, and ornamented with birds, flowers, &c., which stand out prettily from the white linen. A very favourite linen in America is that on which appears a condor tearing a lamb, — a vignette very common in the Belfast linen-hall on linen intended for America. “American linen must be more dressed,” repeated my friend. Manufactories and ware-rooms give the observer an opportunity of studying the character of distant lands and people.

As the whole of South America is accustomed to German linen, the Belfast speculators studiously give to the fabrics intended for Santa Cruz, Rio Janeiro, Pernambuco, &c., a German dress. They imitate both the German and Swiss linens in their external ornaments. In particular, they make use of the Prussian eagle, which they place with extended wings on all pieces destined for South America, that it may pass for the linen of Silesia or Bielefeld. The South Americans will take no linen on which they do not see this eagle. One of the Belfast linen merchants has procured a very ornamented coat of arms, of an old German family, which he puts on his South American linen. Thus “every market has its whim,” as my guide expressed himself.

Even to Germany, as to Hamburg, for instance, considerable bales of linen are sent. I saw a great bale of parcels, all of which had on them a Swiss cottage, surrounded by flowers and birds, and which was destined for Hamburg. They are sent there in order to be re-exported as genuine German manufacture. This speculation is possible, because as linen is cheaper in Belfast than in Germany and as it pays no duty at Hamburg, the transport costs but little; and the South Americans, when they know the linen comes from Hamburg, and see the Swiss cottages, are satisfied that it is genuine German or Swiss linen they receive. This they do not call cheating, but speculation, or “giving a dress.” By this imitation of German linen, and also by obtaining labourers from Germany, this northern linen manufacture has greatly increased and improved. From France, also, some peculiar branches of the trade have been introduced. Thus, French or Belgian workmen have settled at Belfast, and there founded the now not insignificant manufacture of cambric. Many French linens also are here imitated; for instance, the Bretagne linens, which, as well as the German, are so much admired in Spain, and go by the name of “Britannia.”… There are the “blueing, starching, wringing, and beetling machines,” the last of which serve to give the linen its final gloss. The gloss is also of various kinds: there is the high-finished, the soft-finished, and the German-finished gloss. The Americans know this German gloss, and the Belfast bleachers must therefore attend to it. They also know how to place the beaters, that after the beetling it assumes a watered appearance. Then there are the drying-houses, where it is dried by the wind, or, if the case is urgent, by artificial heat. All these things are here so perfect that they seem to be prepared for every chance and necessity of trade, and to be able to comply with the whims of all the markets in the world.

Travels in Ireland, Johann Georg Kohl, 1844


A modern Irish linen damask table cloth in rather inelegant packaging. http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/18085.2

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  It is remarkable how little has changed in trade. To-day, instead of imitating German linen, manufacturers all over the world “pirate” telephone mechanisms, moving pictures, and absurdly expensive hand-bags. In the modern “global market-place,” one wonders if there is a modern equivalent of “German gloss.” It has been Mrs Daffodil’s experience that, for the nouveau riche of the world, most things could scarcely ever be too highly ornamented, even in London.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


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