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How new life is being spun into Northern Ireland's glorious linen industry

Ahead of two exhibitions on linen, we visit Upperlands, home of the last remaining industrial flax harvest in Northern Ireland

By Una Brankin

Sleepy Upperlands has one of those unlikely six-degrees-of-separation connections with the top male supermodel David Gandy. Linen canvas from the flax grown for the last 300 years in the Co Londonderry village, and pounded to lustrous finish in the local beetling mill, has ended up on the modern Adonis's muscular frame via a Belfast designer, who specialises in exquisite hand-crafted accessories such as scarves, ties and handkerchiefs.

Linen goes back much further than the 18th century cloth produced in Upperlands, however, and is now the subject of a major exhibition, Linen In The Bible, at St Columb's Cathedral, Londonderry, which illustrates the use and symbolism of linen in Ancient Egypt and Ancient Israel, along with images and objects that recall linen-making in modern Ireland.

Meanwhile, the linen makers of the two-horse hamlet of Upperlands near Maghera - home to the oldest linen-making business in Ireland and probably the world - are to be the subject of a high profile exhibition by leading German photographer Burkhard Riegels, who was captivated by what he saw there earlier this year.

For beneath the quiet, leafy exterior of the village beats the heart of a reignited industry, supplying linen weekly to Savile Row, international furniture manufacturers and leading designers, including the aforementioned Chris Tyndall of Belfast's Loft Trading company. It was the highly skilled craftspeople keeping this old Ulster tradition alive that caught the artistic eye of acclaimed photographer Burkhard, who shot this evocative series of photographs in the spring.

"I came across Upperlands through my research for a German newspaper on people who are trying to regenerate the old traditional flax and linen industries; people who are working against the grain and taking chances," explains Burkhard, down the line from his studio in Tubingen.

"In Germany we don't have such a tradition - I'm fascinated by how traditional crafts are combined with contemporary manufacturing. And how old crafts are being revived. We have similar economic problems to Northern Ireland now, but not as harsh, and it's wonderful to see people there working on without anger."

Burkhard flew over before the annual flax seed planting in March to meet Bruce Clark, the direct descendant of William Clark, who established his linen manufacturing plant in 1736, making it the oldest of its kind in Ireland.

Still in the hands of the Clark family, the company has been manufacturing fine linen canvas for the tailoring industry for over 260 years, using its unique process of beetling - the pounding of the fabric to flatten it and give it that distinctive sheen flat.

The steady thrum and thump of this dusty operation, overseen by local man Sam Anderson - Ireland's last commercial beetler - makes a hell of a racket behind the old stone walls of the plant.

I was half deafened and choked with allergies on a visit there in May, and delighted to escape into the charming cafe and mini linen museum adjacent - but I was just as taken as Burkhard by Sam's skill and efficiency.

"This beetling was fantastic - the portraits of Sam are a highlight for me," he enthuses. "They're very special, and those of Chris Tyndall too. It was a very special day when I met him in Belfast in Brookfield Mill on the Crumlin Road - we saw the big wall and there were some angry young people throwing water bombs at us! I felt the vibrations but it was very every interesting to me."

Burkhard met Bruce Clark, a writer and linen historian, at his 19th century forebears' home of Ardtara, now a welcoming country house hotel with the most scrumptious food for miles. Actors Bill Murray and Robert de Niro are among the VIPs who have enjoyed the genteel grandeur of Ardtara, said to be haunted by a former lady of the manor.

I was disappointed not to get a fright by her but another guest claims to have seen her reflection in the mirror, watching quietly as she (the guest) applied her make-up before our champagne dinner. Ardtara was lovingly restored by former owner Maebeth Fenton, and is about to change hands to a new proprietor who will thankfully keep it open for business. The old family mill, by contrast, sits in ruins.

"It was hard for me to see the derelict and run-down buildings damaged but I met a people full of hope for the future," says Burkhard.

"If my pictures could help a little bit to promote the flax and linen industry there. I would be very happy."

  • Burkhard Riegels will bring his exhibition to Co Londonderry next year. His stunning photography can be seen on www.art-tempto.de Tel. 00-49-7071-8895188 info@riegels-winsauer.de

Could my family weave together another New World revolution?

Former roving reporter Bruce Clark's picturesque Gorteade Cottage and grounds in Upperlands contain a treasure trove of artefacts and memorabilia open to public visits by arrangement. The only known remaining flax crop in Northern Ireland is planted there each spring and harvested in August - depending on the weather. Bruce, who works for The Economist, looks back on how our linen industry helped shape world history.

Bruce writes:

Three hundred years ago, as any history buff will tell you, the north of Ireland began making its mark on the world in two different, but closely related, ways.

First, people migrated to the New World in huge numbers. They transformed the demographics of the colonies and prepared the way for American independence. And secondly, linen - woven in cottages but bleached and finished with light, water-driven machinery - became Ireland's first industrial export.

These stories are so closely intertwined that they have to be understood as a single narrative. I have realised this since 2011, when I began spending the majority of my time in my home village of Upperlands in Co Derry - in contrast with my previous life as a roving reporter.

And it's an extraordinary narrative, with huge implications for history. I sometimes call it the story of linen, flax and freedom.

By the mid-1700s, there was a three-way trade between North America and Ireland, involving flax-seed, bleached white clot - and people. As Dick McMaster, a fine American historian, has shown, dozens of sailing ships took flax-seed from the New World to Ireland. On their return journeys, those ships brought migrants, mostly but not exclusively Presbyterian.

Some of the flax-seed eventually returned to the New World in the form of crisp white Irish linen, a prized offering in the boutiques of Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, the pace of migration fluctuated along with the fortunes of flax and linen. There was a surge after the horrific year of 1740 when frost and drought killed crops, livestock and people - and another leap in the early 1770s when linen prices in Ireland slumped.

As America's Revolutionary war loomed, a faction of Presbyterians - mostly connected with Ireland and linen - transformed the political scene in Pennsylvania and brought that conservative state round to the cause of independence. This enabled Philadelphia to become a de facto capital of the emerging republic, and the rest is global history.

In Upperlands, which is home to the oldest linen-making business in Ireland and probably the world, all these stories are well known.

In the early to mid-1700s, my forebears began using simple water-driven machinery to mechanise a key stage in the linen process: pounding or beetling the cloth with wooden blocks to make it smoother and shinier. Upperlands is now the only place in Ireland where that process continues on a commercial basis.

While the Clarks were beetling cloth, their neighbours, the Thomsons, were bleaching linen, and probably growing flax, on a nearby farm. But around 1739, the newly widowed John Thomson gave up the struggle and embarked with several of his sons for the New World.

Poor John died on board as the ship approached land, but his 11-year-old son Charles became an American founding father and a co-drafter of the Declaration of Independence.

Charles Thomson never forgot his linen roots. He joined his friend Benjamin Franklin in an attempt to set up a 'linen manufactory' in Philadelphia. In later life, as a Bible translator, he struggled hard to find the right English terms for the many references to flax and linen in the scriptures. Thomson's mentors and friends also came from the world of Irish linen. Francis Alison, the Presbyterian minister who taught him and many other prominent Americans, was a weaver's son from near Letterkenny. And Thomson's ally George Bryan, an early governor of Pennsylvania, came from a prominent Dublin family of transatlantic linen traders.

In Upperlands, we try to weave all these stories together. A coffee shop opposite the beetling engines serves as a community hub and micro-museum of local history. Ardtara Country House, a popular hotel, is steeped in linen lore: it was built in the 19th century on the proceeds of a boom in American demand for Irish cloth. And the Thomson family farm, where groups of visitors can be received by arrangement, has this year hosted parties from America, Australia and Norway. Encouraged by our friends at Flax Mill Textiles, who weave linen near Dungiven, we have grown and harvested an acre of flax. In the best local tradition, we doing our best to spin fine yarns and weave a New World.

  • For further information on visits to Gorteade Cottage and Upperlands, contact Ardtara Country House (Gorteade Rd, Upperlands BT46 5SA) on 028 7964 4490. www.ardtara.com

A heavenly exhibition ...

New scientific research has found that a powerful earthquake in Jerusalem in AD33 may have caused a chemical reaction which created a post-crucifixion image of Christ on the Turin Shroud, long viewed as a medieval fake. 

Now a fascinating exhibition, On Earth As It Is In Heaven - Linen In The Bible, designed by linen historian Bruce Clark and Dr Margaret Barker, is opening in Londonderry's St Columb's Cathedral, from today until November 20, 9am-5pm, Monday to Saturday. The impressive display of images and writings will be launched with a lecture, Weaving The Fabric Of Creation, by Dr Barker, a Methodist preacher and expert on the Old Testament, from Derbyshire. Doors open at 7pm today and refreshments will be served after the lecture, at 9pm. See www.stcolumbscathedral.org

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