Early Medieval (mostly) Textiles #12

Growing flax, making linen thread from it and then weaving or sewing with this thread has a long history and is evidenced from throughout the early medieval period. In England linen was used as a textile for many items including clothing and the fabric on which the Bayeux Tapestry was embroidered. Today linen fabric and thread are still popular and the art of handweaving this plant fibre is a skilled and rarefied craft. Here, I am really pleased to introduce Roisin Aiston, who hand weaves linen on looms preserved at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Northern Ireland. Her linen has been used for many things including the base on which embroidery, including early medieval reproductions and inspired pieces that I make, is worked.

Roisin Aiston has degree is in Archaeology and Palaeoecology from Queens College Belfast. She graduated in 2008 and started in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Northern Ireland, in November 2009 as a Front of  House Assistant. In 2013 she began linen weaving and that has been her full time job ever since. She has always had a keen interest in history and figuring things out, thanks to her Granda and family influences. In her own time she dabbles in miniatures, toy repair, textile repairs, embroidery, a little bit of dress making and also generally keeping busy with some sort of craft or another. Here Roisin tells us about learning to weave working at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum as a weaver and museum interpreter.

Tell us about the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, why it’s important, its aims etc.

The Ulster Folk Museum was set in motion by an Act of Parliament in 1958. This followed many years of active campaigning and its first director George Thompson was appointed in 1959. Alan Gailey was its first curatorial appointee in 1960. Both had been students under Professor E. Estyn Evans who was an inspiration in the creation of the Folk Museum.  The idea of the folk museum was to preserve the way of life, past and present and the traditions of the people of Northern Ireland. The museum was built to illustrate the social history of the people of Northern Ireland using buildings brought from all over Ulster and re-erected in the museum, some are replicas, such as the house Ballydugan that I weave in (it was mainly a clay wall construction but the original was measured up and the replica faithfully built to reflect the original). When it was completed the museum should represent a small town and also rural surroundings, including homes, industries, commercial premises and every class, from the Manor House to the Bank, the Draper’s shop to the Corner shop, the big farmhouse and the small terraced row. Showing the way of life in a part of history that was starting to slip out of living memory

The museum is located within the grounds of Cultra Manor, a 132 acre estate the trustees of the museum purchased in March 1961 and the museum itself opened in 1964. There are over 50 buildings in the Folk Museum at present but there are always ideas and plans for how the museum can evolve and become even better.

View of part of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum

You have worked in several roles at the museum, your present one is a combination of weaving linen and demonstration / outreach. Why is outreach / demonstrating so important? What is it trying to achieve, particularly with regard to the looms, weaving and linen?

The role I have at present is as a Craft Demonstrator; Linen Weaver. The museum has various roles of Craft Demonstrators including Blacksmith, Spade Maker, Basket weaver, Wood Carver, Tweed Weavers and Printer, there are many more but these positions aren’t filled at the moment.

The idea of Craft Demonstrator, in my opinion, is so the museum’s crafts can live and breathe a little through them: the forge is not static, you can feel the heat from the fire and hear the clang of the hammer and anvil. It is the same for the looms, there is something quite sad about a loom sitting in an exhibition static, unmoving, not serving its purpose. I am glad in the museum our looms can move and live so as you walk towards their exhibit buildings you are greeted with the noise of the batten being tapped back or the whoosh of the shuttle through the shed, potentially  a few grumbles from the weaver too!

We try and keep the exhibit buildings as authentic as possible (with the addition of electric lights, fire risk is just too high) so it will feel like you’re stepping back into the workshop of over 100 years ago. Learning in this environment gave me a great appreciation of the challenges a weaver of that era would face – even down to the simple challenge of having to get under the warp threads to the treadles, in a full wool skirt, getting in is not the problem, but extracting yourself is definitely a challenge. There are no quick fixes or easy outs, if threads break you have your thrumbs and scissors and your hands – that’s it! Same with warping up, you have you heddle hook and a piece of paper to help you with your threading and that is all part of the demonstration process.

Demonstrating weaving is so important to me for many reasons. The first is it really brings people back to basics, a common question I would get asked is “are you weaving a shirt?” I know what they mean, the cloth can be used to make a shirt, but the whole process seems to slip in peoples minds – you need to make yarn and then make cloth and then make whatever it is you wish. Even as little kids we’ve all tried paper weaving of over and under, over and under – on the looms this is the best way to explain to anyone from little kids to fully grown adults, that under and over process still happens, the loom just makes it happen a little quicker. That idea is also the basic concept of patterns too so when you explain the beautiful Jacquard Engine and show it’s intricate patterns that principle is the same – just worked over what threads do you want to lift or lower over thousands. It’s also a wonderful time to introduce our visitors to people they vaguely know in their history – we’ve all heard the names and terms Jacquard, Lovelace, Babbage, but we might not know why.

The Jacquard loom in my opinion, and I will admit I am completely biased, is one of the most important, ground breaking pieces of machinery we have in the open air museum. It is the beginning of modern computing, the inspiration to Lovelace and Babbage and their Analytical Engine. As Lovelace once said “the Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves”.

So we can demonstrate the basics of cloth – in regards to linen we can grow flax, pull it (a back breaking job), ret it and then show the basic process of how to remove the fibres to each visitor that comes in through the door. Again, this is something not everyone sees, or really knows about so it’s wonderful to be able to share that with people. We do have a Scutch Mill on site too, which is closed at the moment.

Another aspect of my job that is a privilege, is to fill in blanks in family trees. In Ulster we had a lot of weavers – mainly linen and tweed. So when someone comes in and tells me their great great grandfather was a home weaver they can hear and see and feel what it must have been like for them to work these terrific looms. The other bit I can help with are the various job titles that appear in the records – doffer, tenter, heddle maker, lapper, etc. Not jobs titles we have any more but again, it can help people feel more connected to their own families. Every now and then we also have wonderful moments were someone will visit who worked in a linen mill or a linen factory and you’ll hear the most beautiful stories that never make it into the history books. They are magical moments – thoughts long forgotten but due to the smell in the shed (apparently there is a distinct smell of the flax and oil and damp!) and also the noise, or feel of cloth, or seeing certain patterns these memories come back to the surface.

I have experienced quite a few of these moments, but one that I will always remember was a lady with Alzheimer’s who came in with her daughter. She looked around the looms and her daughter told me she had been a weaver in Belfast. I showed her some of the proof cloths we have. The lady kept running her hand over the selvedge and across the borders, then she grabbed my hand and started to speak about checking the cloth as it ran through the loom, looking for faults and slubs, checking the flowers, her daughter had tears in her eyes and as her mum went to leave the building her daughter told me that she had never heard her mother talk like that before. What a moment to be a small part of.

How did you become interested in weaving linen?

My degree is in Archaeology and Paleoecology, so anyone with that background offered to work 100+ year looms, in an 1850 cottage, dressed in 1900s costume and learning from the ground up, could not pass that opportunity! TO be honest, I had a fascination with the machinery and how it all worked from the beginning. The textiles were not necessarily the draw; however, that has definitely changed over the last few years. My craft room at home showing evidence of that, with the amount of unfinished embroidery projects; collection of linens, from first class airline napkins to Victorian drawn thread work; and all sorts in between.

Another reason I felt drawn to weaving is that most of my dad’s side of the family worked in Liddell’s, a linen factory in Donaghcloney. Most of them were weavers but there was a tuner as well. They would have worked on the faster, more complex power looms but I hoped it was in my genes somewhere, that I would have some sort of affinity with a shuttle. I hope that turns out to be true.

When I began, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the loom and my biggest goal is to have both fully operational. Over the years I’ve learnt drawn and pulled thread, white work embroidery, picture weaving, how to construct patterns on point paper and what to look for in woven cloth. The latter can be quite difficult to explain when you’re shopping for curtains/sofa/bed with a cloth surround, as that’s what I seem to focus mainly on! However it can be quite handy when friends have plucked a woven pair of curtains or coats; I can get my little tool kit out and do a wee repair when needed.

Tell us about the learning process.

My learning process was quite unique and challenging, for want of better words. When I changed jobs to become a linen weaver, the museum had a Master Weaver of nearly 70 years time served. The plain linen loom I was employed to run hadn’t moved in decades and needed parts made for it, as well as needing to be re-warped and all other aspects of trying to gently encourage this beautiful 100 year old machine to start working again. The Master Weaver at the time taught me the basics of how to set up a plain linen loom and oversaw that process, and then unfortunately left the museum.

So for the next 7 years I would be basically self-taught, figuring things out as I went, asking our tweed weaver for advice and trying to translate that from a tweed loom to a linen loom.  The best learning process, but also the longest is by trial and error, try something if it works that’s brilliant. If it doesn’t, learn from that mistake but learn quickly and move on.

For plain linen the biggest challenge is practice and fixing the loom if anything happens. For practice you have to learn your throwing speed / technique, a little bit of rhythm and also your limits. You are not the same weaver in the afternoon after 6 hours, as you are bright as a daisy first thing in the morning.

Within the museum there isn’t anyone on site who specialises in the upkeep of the looms, apart from the weavers. So if there is a problem, you need to figure it out, narrow it down and either fix it yourself or if parts need to be made then explain what it is to Conservation Technicians and how it needs to go into the loom. Most things, thankfully, can be fixed by the weavers. You start to learn that the looms are a mix of odds and ends. The main frames of the loom have never changed but the little beaters for the shuttles will wear out after time, cords will slip, willow (which I use as a return spring) need to be replaced or the little bump stops need attention. So the loom is built and changed and added to over time. It’s all a learning curve, for sure.

The biggest challenge for me, and I’m still in the process of getting on good terms with this loom, is the narrow width Jacquard loom in the shed. It is set up to do napkins and hasn’t run in quite a number of years. Unfortunately, teaching me this one was not high on the agenda, with the words “she’ll never weave on that one” uttered. Which, to be honest, was like a red flag to a bull. So from watching the loom, moving certain parts, trying bits out and making a lot of mistakes, I finally wove a couple of lines of text in August 2019 and I burst out crying (not sure the group of visitors in the shed at the time really knew what to do!). It was incredible that this loom, that I was told I would never run, was producing cloth in the way I had guessed it would. I floated for a week after that! Now the next challenge – this loom has around 2,500 threads in its warp and it needs to be fully re-warped. So at the minute I’m trying to find out where to source threads from, get the beam transported and warped and then begin that process. The most nerve-wracking part is all of the old threads need to come out of the loom completely, I have written it down in multiple notebooks, taken photos, done a little recording but I think I might have to take a minute before I cut the old threads out. Once that is done, there’s no going back. Time really has no meaning in the museum, as you have visitors popping in and out during the day and other things happening, so a rethread in the museum takes a lot longer than it would in a private business.

Explain the different looms in the museum, their history, how you keep them going, your relationship with them…

We have three different looms in the museum. All are narrow width. One is a Tweed loom and is based in space behind the Drapers Shop of the museum. It dates to c. 1890 and is from a weaver’s house in Newtownards. We have two weavers who run this loom and can do the whole process from making the warp, tying on and weaving. One of the weavers is an excellent spinner so she can demonstrate the process of carding and spinning wool too. The other weaver is incredible with working with natural dyes and also demonstrates this process.  

There are two looms in Ballydugan Weavers Cottage (a replica of a 1850 cottage which would have originally held four looms). Both are c.1900, one from Waringstown, the other from Lisburn. One of the looms, the one I would run most often, is set up to weave plain linen, the other is set up to run Jacquard.

I don’t think the looms ever ‘thought’ they’d be running pretty much flat out at 100 years old, so they do need some attention every now and then. The weaving shed in Ballydugan is a clay floor, it keeps the humidity at a pretty good level, which the linen likes. The looms, not so much. The most recent work to be done on this loom was to address damp rot, so with the museum’s Conservation and the Handling Team, the loom had to be lifted a few feet in the air. Rotten pieces of uprights removed and replaced and new skids and damp proof membrane added so the loom would be more secure. My heart was in my throat the whole time, as I spend more time with this loom than I do with my family and it was like it was going through major surgery and all I could do was watch from the side-lines.

On a day to day basis, the loom gets some oil and some readjustment to cords when needed. She has a shuttle built specifically to her requirements (thankful to have a husband who is a CNC Machinist and who made a flying shuttle in 2017) and then if anything breaks or looks like it has the potential to break, we’ll address the problem as soon as we can.

Each of the looms are so different. I can weave on the tweed loom but it is neither elegant nor pretty to watch and the cloth isn’t great either. The weights are all different, weaving position is slightly different, the shuttle is a lot heavier and the batten does not need as much force.

The Jacquard loom needs a gentle touch, slower with the shuttle, easing the batten back, it’s a lot slower to weave on as you use your left foot to change the card over to the next, or back to the previous, but then you also have eight treadles that have to be pressed in sequence to hold the pattern. So everything goes naturally slower with this loom, its runs with very fine yarn too, so even this creates its own challenge. It does not take kindly to being rushed or the weaver being too heavy handed.

Ballydugan Weavers Cottage. Taken from https://www.nmni.com/story/warp-and-weft-story

The plain linen loom, which I’m always so tempted to call mine, so if I do please forgive me, is what I am used to. The shuttle is light and moves with a gentle flick, the noises are different, the batten needs to be drawn back with some force at least twice, sometimes three times depending on how many threads you want to squeeze into the inch and you need to stop every few minutes to wind it on and move the temples / tenters. With this loom, you get used to how it feels, it has its own rhythm it’s happy to run at so trying to find that is key; a good tune in your head helps at this point in time. I spend more time with this loom that any person I know, so you end up talking away to it, and I will admit, when we went into the first major lockdown and I was allowed on site to do essential work to make sure the loom would be safe for the next few months before I would see it again, I gave it a huge hug before I left. You really do get attached to them and I will also say on record, they have their own personalities.

What are the processes involved in weaving linen on these machines? Timings, issues, how you overcome them etc.

The process of weaving on these looms can be quite a challenge. If the looms need a rethread from scratch (as I’ve said before, the jacquard is next on the list for this at 2500 threads!) then we have to source the threads and amounts, and get the warp beam warped up off site – this in itself involves conservation being involved as the warp beam is a museum object and for it to leave site, it needs to be documented and handled correctly. Then the drawing in process, as we don’t shut the doors to the exhibit building this process takes a lot longer than it should as you stop to chat to visitors about the process, what’s happening, why you’re doing certain things… and after each of those conversations you need to check what you’ve just done, one thread out of place and you need to go back and fix it, so double check every time you stop.

The process of weaving on these looms – they are both hand thrown flying shuttles, so the process is quite labour intensive, with your feet controlling treadles and arms throwing the shuttle. On the plain linen loom it takes 70 threads to do an inch of cloth, so 70 throws, c. 2520 per yard. This can take some time, usually in the museum if we’re busy with visitors I would be lucky to get a yard done in a day.

Everything on these looms comes down to practice, perseverance and patience. Rhythm also helps, if you have a good song in your head you’ll get into a lovely beat with the loom and your motions become second nature – Right foot down, open shed, push back reed, throw shuttle, pull back batten, left down, push reed back, throw shuttle, pull back batten and repeat. The closest I can describe it is when you start learning how to drive – hands on wheel, then chose a gear, clutch in, change gear, accelerate, indicate, listen to the engine noise, change gear etc. There are a lot of parts of the looms moving and a lot of parts on the weaver moving too, and these all need to move in harmony, otherwise you’ll send the shuttle flying or catch it in the threads, break something, snap threads, pinch in the selvedge or just generally make a nightmare for yourself.

It really is those three words – practice, it will get better and you will get used to it. Perseverance – keep going it will get better and you will get better. Patience – take it easy on yourself and the loom, things will go wrong, they can be fixed, mistakes will be made and you will learn.

What’s it like having an audience watch and interact with you while you work?

Having an audience can be a mixture of feelings – daunting, frustrating, exciting and interesting all maybe in the same day, even with the same group of people! But it is a wonderful experience to be able to demonstrate this craft.

Rethreading a loom is a very tedious and slow process, and bear in mind the plain linen loom has 1580, Jacquard 2500, it is not the most exciting demonstration for visitors to watch but it is an incredibly important part of set up. The same goes for if the loom has thrown up a problem and you’re balancing the heddles, or just if you’re having a rough day – the loom will amplify that. If you are in a bad mood, not great form, go for a walk, have a coffee, dance…. but for the love of yarn do not weave! You will start to throw the shuttle out of the loom, break threads and just scrap the cloth. Best to come in with a good song in your head, after a coffee and a biscuit and be in the right frame of mind, and the loom should be quite happy to work with you. It can be embarrassing when things go wrong – I’ve thrown the shuttle out of the loom many times in front of visitors and it makes the most horrendous bang. I’ve found myself stuck under the loom as my skirt hem has become trapped under my heel and I’ve also scared visitors when I was up on top of the Jacquard and they didn’t expect to see someone up in the rafters. The most embarrassing had to be on an autumn morning when I went to demonstrate and noticed a spider trying to untangle itself from the warp threads, it was huge and I do not cope well with spiders. There was a family group in and I had to ask if someone would mind extracting said spider from the warp threads, adults of the group stepped back and pushed a small 8 year old boy forward, who successfully removed the spider and the demonstration could happen. It’s those random moments that make the job though!

On a good day it is quite incredible to hear the reaction of people who have never seen a loom work, especially a linen loom. It is quite a loud process, a thump in your chest if it runs properly, force and power and actually quite quick, or at least the shuttle moves quickly, the cloth quite slowly. The windows of Ballydugan are single pane glass so you can hear everything through them and I’ve heard a few compliments over the years as people walk past commenting on the speed of the loom, or the noise, or just what it was like to see it work.  There’s no feeling quite like it when you and the loom run well together and everything just works right and you hear someone say “wow” in the background! That makes a day, it can even make a week!

The questions visitors ask can also be fabulous! Some you do have a little chuckle about later, most are similar – to explain the process, where does linen come from, when did it come to Ireland, how big was the industry, how does the loom work, how old is the loom…. But every now and then you get a question that is totally different and they are wonderful. Sometimes I’ll nip into the back of the shed to find a book or a photo to explain, or double check a date but those questions force you to keep learning, keep researching, keep reading as you never know when you’ll be asked something you might not be able to answer.

When working with the looms does it become innate / embedded?

It does become innate, but you can’t force that, or put a time scale on it. You just have to wait. For the first little while of weaving you’ll be frustrated, things will go wrong, you’ll get cross and want to give up as when one things goes wrong it has a knock on effect and then that Catch 22 of you’ll get frustrated and all that does is make your weaving even worse.

At one stage you’ll sit down and think “right, to heck with this….” and at that point the loom will fall into step with you and at that moment you just want to smile and cry all at the same time.

Then things become second nature, we all hone in our gut instinct, we’ve evolved it over thousands of years so don’t ignore it. On a loom if you throw the shuttle or draw the ley back and it doesn’t feel quite right, it probably isn’t! Stop and see what’s happening. It could be as simple as a cord that’s loose or a little bit of oil is needed but don’t ignore it. The sound of the loom is also so important, even if you’re wearing ear plugs, something might just not sound right, you’ll listen for cues to beat back, when to throw the shuttle, all sorts. In weaving you’ll learn the hard way.

I’ll always remember, many years ago one of the worst mistakes I ever made was when I didn’t listen to the loom. There’s a very distinct noise when the shuttle clears the shed and is tucked nicely back into the shuttle box and stopped for a second, I wasn’t listening and didn’t hear the shuttle bounce back into the shed, and I beat back. I snapped 26 threads in an inch at the selvedge and that is not good, not good at all. I scrapped about 2ft of cloth trying to get everything to bed back in. A broken thread is like a weld, it’s a weakness so the knot might not always hold as you weave so you retie…. Now imagine 26 of those in a really small area. I have never done that again – I learnt the hard way.

On the best days weaver and loom work in a harmony, your rhythm is right, the threads are a good tension, the spindles are well oiled and the shuttle flies well and true and those days are perfect. The cloth keeps growing and you don’t feel tired, it feels nearly effortless. Now you will go home with a sore shoulder or sore back, but it doesn’t feel just as bad on day like that.

Damask Weaving is listed as a critically endangered craft by the Heritage Crafts Association, why is it important to keep this skill alive? What are the implications of loosing it?

Damask weaving/ Jacquard weaving is an important skill to keep alive as it shows the absolute basics of patterned weaving and computing. At the minute, the Heritage Crafts Association listed Damask Weaving as critically endangered with 5 people listed as running these kind of looms in the UK.

This loom really brings you back to the basics of pattern, using a pre-determined punch card system and it isn’t just the weaving that is important. In the UFM collections we have examples of all the stages – from sketches of patterns to the point paper, the punch cards, the proof cloths, the final cloth and also some of the advertising booklets.  A lot of patterned cloth that is woven now is designed using computer aided design and sent to the loom. The loom then controls the lifts through automation with very little input from people. Of course there are still weavers to look after the looms and make sure everything is running as it should but their role is not the same.

On a Jacquard loom with a hand thrown shuttle and treadles, each step is controlled by the weaver. The cards tell the loom what threads to lift but the weaver controls this lift and everything else that is happening. Again, it brings you right back to basics and I think that’s why it’s so important to keep that skill alive. If we cannot see the very beginning it is so much harder to see where and why we are where we are now. The Jacquard was also such a big inspiration and played a part in the technology we have now – from the phones in our pockets to the laptops we work on.

My biggest reason that this skill should be kept alive is linen and especially the damask/jacquard linen of Ireland, which made this country world famous. It put Irish linen on the world stage and was celebrated across the globe. From thousands of these looms running in harmony across the country it breaks my heart to think there are only single figures left now still producing cloth.

Explain the importance of linen and Ireland, and what fascinates you about this history.

Linen was a backbone to Ulster and its growth as a world famous producer – even now, if you mention Irish linen it will be met with oohs and positives for quality, and it is still highly sought after. But the story of linen goes so much further back, to the Neolithic Swiss lake dwellers and the Egyptians. That idea of ceremony from the bandages used in the mummification process, to the ecclesiastical cloths of the large cathedrals, to our dining room tables at Christmas and special occasions were we bring out the good cut glass and the linen table cloth. Linen has always been there, for special occasions and moments in our lives.

In Ireland it would be difficult to look back in a family tree and not have someone associated with the linen industry – from farmers who grew flax, spinners, weavers, shuttle makers, power loom manufacturers, designers, lappers, those who painted intricate details on the cloth, those who sold it by the yard or made it into dresses or aprons and also those who laundered it. It is at the very core of Belfast becoming a city and ingrained in our history.

I was captivated by linen because of its constant existence in our lives, its sheer beauty and also the work that goes in to it. I want to research and celebrate all those stages, because each are supported by the other. A good spinner and a good weaver can make an incredible cloth and that, in the skilled hands of a embroiderer can be brought to life. I do spend quite a lot of my time collecting older pieces of linen and imaging where they would have been. One such find I adore is a little five piece set on natural linen – there is a large main circular piece I imagine being embroidered by the mother of the house and four smaller pieces. Three out of the four take after the mother, each piece embroidered as well on the front as on the back, neat stitches and lose ends caught in. The forth piece is the best, there are knots in the back, uneven stitching at the front and you can see where she has made so many mistakes and just tucked them in on the back! It makes me smile! That set was tucked at the bottom of a bargain bucket in an antiques shop, priced at £7, such a low value to a piece that gives me a story (even if I have used some poetic license and given it its own story!) But it is the same with huge big pieces you buy as a lot for very little, when its washed and you begin to iron it, you start to make out the details. One of my favorites is a huge table cloth from the Park Lane Hotel London, dated for its opening in 1927.

I don’t know if it’s my background in Archaeology but I think these pieces should have a voice and also the people of our past, who are now long gone, still have a lot to tell us and that fascinates me and captures my imagination.

Where do you source your linen? Does this process have links to the historical process?

For the plain linen loom we were able to get the warp made in Fergusons of Banbridge. The threads themselves come from Europe. For the rethreading of the Jacqaurd loom, we would ideally like to use Fergusons to wrap the beam but if not, there’s a company in England we can use. Again, the threads will come from Europe, possibly Italy.

Ideally it would be great to be able to warp in house but we don’t think the warping frame would cope well with linen. It can be temperamental with a 500 wool yarn warp. I think a 2,500 linen warp might push it and us to our limits. Ideally, we wanted to use Fergusons as it is about 40 miles up the road from the museum and is also the last of the big factories who are still weaving just linen, so that link is very important.

What happens to the finished fabrics?

When the finished fabrics come off the loom, they’re washed and pressed and then go on to be many random things! We rarely do commissions in the museum, as there is a fine balance between doing what are in essence production runs and demonstrating for the public – the main purpose of our jobs. But over the years I have been lucky to be part of projects for Jenny Adin Christie and her Ulster Pocket workshop, as well as Ornamental Embroidery and their Jacobean Blackwork course and also for Dr. Alexandra Makin. I’ve also made cloth that have been turned into shirts for the permanent collection of UFM, which was a very special moment for me as this collection of over 36,000 pieces now has two pieces of my woven cloth in it. Unbelievable!

In general we sell anything we produce in the museum’s shop – there is something quite special about meeting the crafts people and then being able to have a piece of their work. We do try and be inventive in what we produce, while trying to keep a focus on the traditional aspects of the craft. Most of my linen is either sold as plain unfinished pieces which can be used for many different projects. If I’m feeling creative with needle and thread I have made key rings, lavender bags, flower brooches and little miniature embroidered brooches of some of the houses of the museum.

Sewing at Hanna Brothers. Taken from https://www.nmni.com/story/warp-and-weft-story
Embroidering linen. Taken from https://www.nmni.com/story/warp-and-weft-story

What would you like to see happen with the looms / linen weaving in the future?

In an ideal world I would like to see both looms running at their best, fully operational! For the plain linen loom, I think it is probably running at its best right now, after its major conservation work. Its just taking a little bit of time to settle down.

The Jacquard loom is a priority, but one that is still on the back burner as operationally, I have pieces still to make on the plain linen loom and I can’t devote the needed attention to the Jacquard. In its future it needs a full rethread and the engine looked at (in the bottom of my stomach something just still isn’t quite right), a shuttle made specifically for it and the next 20 years for me to be proficient in weaving on it and then teach someone else!

These looms, and I will admit, I am totally biased, should always run, and be looked after, so that when the thought of Northern Ireland’s famous legacy of linen weaving and textile industry is just a whisper of the past, that people can still see the backbone of this industry, the skill, the work, the passion, the blood sweat and tears that our distant relatives did, and that they become a little less distant to us.

I would like to thank Roisin for this fantastic insight into her work and weaving in a museum setting. Also, for highlighting the importance of the linen industry in and to Ireland and for giving us a glimpse into the stories it holds.

After this great post I would like you to join me next month when we hear about the Fashioning the Viking Age project that is being run at the Centre for Textile Research, University of Copenhagen.

Contact: If you would like to contact Roisin or keep up to date with her work, please use one of the links below:

Email: roisin.aiston@nmni.com

Twitter: @roisin_aiston on twitter

Useful Resources:

The Ulster Folk and Transport Museum can be found at: nmni.com

Books:

Crafted in Ireland, Megan McManus (Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, 1986)

From Corrib to Cultra – folklife essays in honour of Alan Gailey, various authors (Institute of Irish Studies, 2000)

The Impact of the Domestic Linen Industry in Ulster, W.H. Crawford (Ulster Historical Foundation, 2004)

Irish People, Irish Linen, Kathleen Wilson (Ohio University Press, 2011)

The Making of Irish Linen, Peter Collins (Friar’s Bush Press, 1993)

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