Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Irish linen ... and the Wellbrook Beetling Mill

Here in Ulster we pride ourselves on our traditional Irish linen.  Just about every family home boasts a snowy, white table cloth made of fine linen damask that gets pulled out on high days and holy days. Often it's something very precious that's been handed down from grandmother to granddaughter with beautiful hand embroidery that was worked by candlelight a hundred years ago.

For centuries the very finest linen in the world has been produced here. In the old days small farmers up and down the Province grew a field or two of flax, rotating it with their other crops from year to year. When the flowers bloomed in August the flax was ready to harvest, and everyone descended on the fields to pull the plants out by the root. They didn't use knives to cut the stems so as not to waste any of the valuable fibre, which descends down into the roots. At a time when the dark shadow of famine still stalked the land it was important to capture every useful part of the plant and not to waste anything that could be turned into profit to put food on the table.

The flax was then threshed to remove the seeds and the outer straw.

Next the flax plants had to be retted, a process whereby they were soaked in water to break down the outer parts of the plant stem making it easier to extract the useful fibre within. To this day when you go out walking in the Ulster countryside you come across small, black ponds, fed by diverted streams. Once upon a time these were the flax holes, in which the flax was left to rot. My mum (who's really not that old) vividly remembers the putrid smell of the plants when they were pulled out of the fetid water for the next part of the process.

After a few weeks when the outer parts of the stems had rotted away the flax was taken out and dried off before being scutched,which involved beating off the remaining external fibres using long wooden knives.

The long strands of useful fibre were now hackled, that is to say they were drawn through a succession of increasingly fine-toothed hackle combs, which were essentially beds of nails to remove any remaining chaff. This remaining chaff was known as the toe, from which a rough, inferior textile for poor men's clothes were made: hence the expression toe rag. Next they were spun by hand into linen threads for weaving.

Once the linen cloth was woven on a loom it produced a loose, open grained fabric, which was then beaten, or beetled, to close the weave and produce a denser textile. And this is the point at which the Wellbrook Beetling Mill just outside Cookstown in County Tyrone comes into the picture. Built in the 1760's and operated commercially until the 1960's, it's the only surviving beetling mill in the Province that remains operational.

It's powered by water from the fast flowing Balinderry River which is diverted into a mill race that raises it some 15 metres to fall and hit the water wheel at the side of the building. There's a sluice gate that operates the on/ off switch and can be controlled from inside the building where there are seven beetling machines, two of which are still operating.

When you take a tour of the premises they'll open the sluice gate and start one of their engines.  The noise will impress you even though you're standing on the floor above looking down from the viewing gallery. I can only imagine how deafening it must have been for the folk working on the same level as all seven machines when they were in action. And many of those poor folk were children of as little as eight years of age, just like my Emi. They were better at dodging and diving between the machines, where they worked 12 hour shifts, six days a week for a few pennies. Most of them skipped school completely to earn the small pittance they were paid. Literacy rates were low, many were injured, their lungs weakened by the straw debris in the air that they breathed throughout their long workday and almost all of them suffered impaired hearing as a result of the unrelenting noise of the beetling engines.

The smaller children would start off measuring out the skeins of linen thread for the weavers on a clock easel such as the one in the photo above. Because they weren't able to take time off to go to school few of them were able to count. As a result the clock easel had an internal mechanism called the weasel. When the requisite number of resolutions had been made to measure out the correct length of thread (usually 80 yards) the weasel would pop. This is believed to have been the origins of the nursery rhyme:
Half a pound of tupenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle,
That's the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel. 

It's a bit chilling to think that such a popular nursery rhyme should have its origins in such grim and exploitative child labour. And it makes me look rather differently at the antique table linens that my mother and I have cherished down the years. Some of them are heirloom pieces that my grandmothers embroidered, and others are wonderful finds that we've snapped up as job-lots at auction. Often these wonderful fabrics go unappreciated in a world where everyone wants a low-maintenance, non-iron tablecloth or an oilcloth that doesn't need anything more than a sponge-down. But for those special occasions when you might think of dressing up the table, inviting a few friends over and making something really wonderful for dinner there's nothing to compare with the timeless beauty of fine linen damask. Have a look at some of my grandmother's handiwork and see what you think:

My paternal Grandma embroidered the cloth in the photos above as a centrepiece for her dining table, and the reverse side is almost as pretty as the display side. Her needlework is so very, very neat. What makes it all the more amazing is that she was as short-sighted as I am, and must really have struggled to thread her needle in the gloom of her not very bright lights with her heavy glasses that slipped to the end of her nose every time she bent over her work.

I can't say that Emi is desperately impressed with any of this. He enjoyed the booming racket of the mill, and the splashing majesty of the waterwheel when the sluice gate opened, but flowery antique table cloths are totally not his scene.

Every night when I get home
The monkey's on the table,
Take a stick and knock it off,
Pop! goes the weasel.

For now I'll keep them safely wrapped in tissue paper, and take them out from time to time when we've got something really special to celebrate but it's hard to forget the story of the weasel and the sacrifice that went into producing them.

Up and down the City Road,
In and out the Eagle.
That's the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel.

If you're over in this neck of the woods and you'd like to check out a little bit of our industrial heritage you can find the website for the Wellbrook Beetling Mill here:Wellbrook Beetling Mill. It's run by the National Trust and makes a great venue for a weather-proof afternoon out.

All the best for now,

Bonny x

As shared on the Alphabet Project


  1. Just the sort of embroidery my Granny used to do #alphabetphoto

    1. How lovely. I'm guessing it was all a lot more popular in the days before television ... . All the best, Bonny

  2. Amazing piece of history on your table. I remember this is what my mother do when they are young. She worked early as she's got 9 other siblings and she is the oldest. She didnt finished school too. I just remembered her when you are working about child labor. #alphabetphoto

    1. I'm so sorry for your poor mum. It must have been a tough life. Our generation is so lucky. All the best, Bonny

  3. What a fascinating post, such an amazing story. Thanks for sharing with #alphabetphoto