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The great Irish linen revival - why popularity of eco-friendly indigenous fabric has soared during the pandemic

Linen has been enjoying something of a renaissance in the global fashion world but it took a pandemic for many Irish people to wake up to the joys of this eco-friendly indigenous fabric, writes our Fashion Editor

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Billowing: Aoibheann MacNamara and Triona Lillis of the Tweed Project in their limited-edition balloon dress, €490. Photo: Ben Geoghegan

Billowing: Aoibheann MacNamara and Triona Lillis of the Tweed Project in their limited-edition balloon dress, €490. Photo: Ben Geoghegan

An Alexander McQueen linen creation on the catwalk

An Alexander McQueen linen creation on the catwalk

Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

On trend: Irish linen kimono robe, €395, with ultra-skinny scarf, worn as an obi belt, €70, from Stable of Ireland

On trend: Irish linen kimono robe, €395, with ultra-skinny scarf, worn as an obi belt, €70, from Stable of Ireland

Sybil Connolly's pleated linen 'Heiress' masterpiece dress

Sybil Connolly's pleated linen 'Heiress' masterpiece dress

Princess Diana wearing a Paul Costelloe linen dress in Sydney in 1983

Princess Diana wearing a Paul Costelloe linen dress in Sydney in 1983

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Billowing: Aoibheann MacNamara and Triona Lillis of the Tweed Project in their limited-edition balloon dress, €490. Photo: Ben Geoghegan

Covid-19 produced several breakout stars, from musicians to podcasters to a couple of canine social-media stars called Olive and Mabel. Local shops also shot up in our affections as we pored over every last detail in their windows while living in our 2km bubble.

And when it came to navigating the brave new world of mask wearing, Irish linen was another breakout star, emerging quietly from stage left to become a new and valued friend. Light and comfortable on the face, linen is woven from spun flax and has naturally antibacterial and anti-fungal properties.

But it's not just because it makes for good masks that we have fallen back in love with this heritage material. Linen's fast-growing profile has been driven by its eco credentials: biodegradable, highly durable and, best of all (for the mask-wearing public), it's breathable.

Over the years, it has been linen's tendency to crease and wrinkle, a quirk that was to blame for the prejudices it endured. In our time-poor lifestyles, the maintenance routine around ironing linen while damp broke some hearts and dimmed the will of less committed fashionistas.

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Princess Diana wearing a Paul Costelloe linen dress in Sydney in 1983

Princess Diana wearing a Paul Costelloe linen dress in Sydney in 1983

Princess Diana wearing a Paul Costelloe linen dress in Sydney in 1983

However, in our 'recalibrated' lives, there is a tangible desire and heightened respect for comfort and all things natural. Linen coming back into vogue is down to a mix of trends, but with sustainability now key across both fashion and lifestyle, organic linen represents the ultimate in sustainable luxury.

The humble linen tea towel was always a staple in Irish kitchens but now a new trend has emerged for linen hand and bath towels. These have the added bonus that the weave acts like an inbuilt exfoliator.

Meanwhile, in the bedroom, luxury linen sheets have long been a big high-end seller in the US - and word is spreading. Not only are linen sheets thought to encourage regular sleep cycles but the more you wash them, the softer they feel.

The discovery of dyed flax fibres in a cave in Georgia dated to 36,000 years ago tells us that ancient people used wild flax fibres to create linen-like fabrics. The Egyptians used it for their burial shrouds and mummification. As Dublin-based textile conservator Rachel Phelan points out, linen from the tombs of the pharaohs in London's V&A Museum and The Met in New York City remains in remarkably good condition.

Phelan, who conserves clothes, explains that linen is tough. "It was made to last and if you look at medieval wills, such as that of John Rothe (mayor of Kilkenny in 1613), he and his wife left their linens to certain people because they were valuable and would last forever."

The last year has indeed been something of a golden one for linen in the world of haute couture. Sarah Burton, creative director at Alexander McQueen, did much to raise the profile and appeal of Irish linen when she and her team travelled last summer to Northern Ireland, where linen was once a powerful industry.

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On trend: Irish linen kimono robe, €395, with ultra-skinny scarf, worn as an obi belt, €70, from Stable of Ireland

On trend: Irish linen kimono robe, €395, with ultra-skinny scarf, worn as an obi belt, €70, from Stable of Ireland

On trend: Irish linen kimono robe, €395, with ultra-skinny scarf, worn as an obi belt, €70, from Stable of Ireland

"Often our collections start with a research trip, and for spring 2020 we went to Ireland," Burton told the fashion bible Vogue ahead of her April runway show. "I wanted the collection to be about slowing things down, stripping back to the toile - and about timelessness. That led us to linen, a completely sustainable cloth, a noble fabric, and one that Ireland, in particular, is famous for."

In Derry, Burton and her team worked with William Clark, the oldest linen mill in Ireland, and they got to witness up close the creation of 'beetling', a 300-year-old finish in which the linen is pounded over many hours. This allows the base cloth to develop a beautiful and characterful sheen. The smashing process flattens the fibres to produce a smooth, satin-like texture. William Clark is the last commercial beetlers in the world and creates a finish unrivalled by modern processing that can be tailored to suit your needs.

In Banbridge, Co Down, the McQueen team visited the Thomas Ferguson company, which has been in business for 166 years and is the last remaining damask linen weaver in the world. When the McQueen collection was shown in Paris last January, the audience was enthralled by the Irish heritage. Irish linen was back in the limelight.

Burton, who designed Kate Middleton's wedding dress in 2011, has done a lot to bring fresh eyes to the Irish linen landscape. But in delivering her modern take, she is following in the footsteps of couturier Sybil Connolly, who created a sensational twist on the fabric after arriving here from Wales in the 1940s.

A risk-taker by nature, Connolly's signature approach was to pleat handkerchief linen. Hardly cost-effective, it was a case of artisanal craft over cost. It took up to nine yards of linen handkerchiefs to create just one yard of her uncrushable pleated fabrics.

But the canny Welshwoman seduced style icons around the world with it, including American First Lady Jackie Kennedy, who posed for her 1970 Aaron Shikler White House portrait wearing Sybil's pleated masterpiece.

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Sybil Connolly's pleated linen 'Heiress' masterpiece dress

Sybil Connolly's pleated linen 'Heiress' masterpiece dress

Sybil Connolly's pleated linen 'Heiress' masterpiece dress

Indeed, Connolly called her Georgian Dublin home on 71 Merrion Square "the house that linen built". Her important archive pieces - including 'The Heiress' fairy-tale tiered gown of chevron-pleated handkerchief linen with décolletage filled with Irish crochet motifs - are part of a collection at The Hunt Museum in Limerick. Connolly's work can be viewed online and there is a capsule collection currently on exhibition in the museum on Rutland Street.

Dublin-born designer Paul Costelloe has been working with Irish linen since the 1970s. The veteran designer waxes lyrical about its uses, from how it looks in christening robes and First Communion dresses to how it behaves in production, flying through the machine.

"Think Marcello Mastroianni in the film La Dolce Vita. He is wearing a black linen suit which is very masculine and actress Anita Ekberg wears a white linen shirt. It looks so beautiful, so chic," he says.

"Linen has values that I think people have only perceived and become aware of quite recently. I certainly know our sales of linen over the last couple of months have been incredible," says Costelloe, who will present natural, undyed linen pieces next spring. The designer made headlines in 1983 when he dressed Princess Diana in two Irish linen dresses for her tour of Australia. The fact that Diana was snapped beside scantily clad lifeguards on Bondi Beach guaranteed column inches for Costelloe and his dropped-waist, yellow Irish linen dress. It remains his favourite Costelloe piece in the late princess's royal wardrobe.

"Diana looked cool, feminine and comfortable, and that's what happens when you wear linen - it weaves a magic of its own," says Costelloe.

The modern-day saviour of Irish linen fashion sits on the outskirts of Wexford town. Emblem Weavers is one of the only companies weaving linen in the south of Ireland. The company's founder, Jim Conway, used his 21st-birthday money in 1962 to buy two second-hand looms. He made a yarn winder from a bicycle wheel and set up his weaving business in a basement on Dublin's Amiens Street. Conway sold his fabrics door to door before hitting the international market and supplying Sybil Connolly.

Nowadays, Emblem's order books show how popular Irish linen has become, with clients in Japan and across Europe. Jim's son, Stephen, explains how there are various linen weaves which produce differences in the texture and the drape of the fabric.

"The most common is a plain weave. There is the herringbone in various sizes and sateen or twill weave. The finishing process lends a lot to the finished fabric and we do two finishes - a soft laundered finish where the fabric is broken down with air to give it that very silky-type feel, and we also do a tumble-washed, tumble-dried version which is quite rustic, pre-creased and very popular with the up-and-coming designers," Stephen tells me.

At one stage in the 19th century, some 240,000 acres of Irish land were planted with flax but Stephen says very little, if any, is grown in Ireland anymore. "The majority of flax is grown on the French and Belgian border. We deal with spinning companies in France and Italy. We buy our yarn white and have it dyed."

According to the Irish Linen Guild, which was founded in 1928, the trademark can only be used to mark genuine Irish linen products such as linen yarn which is spun in Ireland and linen fabrics woven in Ireland by members of the Guild. Flax was grown in Ireland as far back as 1,000 BC. It was cured in bogs around the country and the Brehon laws made it obligatory for farmers to learn and practise the cultivation of flax.

Emblem Weavers supplies woven linen to everyone from Paul Costelloe to Richard Malone in London, and at home it supplies fashion and lifestyle brands such as Stable of Ireland, The Tweed Project in Galway, Alanagh Clegg of Four Threads, Eoin Dillon of Reuben Avenue, Irish Linen House and the Bébhínn label in Waterford.

Former models Sonia Reynolds and Francie Duff frequently appeared in glossy magazines around the world wearing glorious linens and heritage Irish tweeds. They loved the fabrics so much, they wanted to celebrate them and, four years ago, started their lifestyle brand, Stable of Ireland. They sell their linen dresses, kimono robes, scarves, tablecloths, napkins and towels as well as face masks at their Westbury Mall store in Dublin, and online to their international market.

"We wanted to celebrate Irish textiles, particularly linen, and where once it was part of our DNA, when it came to the introduction of synthetic fabrics, I think the Irish parked their love of linen," Reynolds tells me.

"The Europeans had a great understanding of it but I think the Irish view was, 'sure it always creases' - but that is part of the charm and the beauty of linen. It is a natural fibre. It breathes.

"For us, linen has become the unsung hero in our modern times. When you delve back in history, linen was used in everything from thread, shoe laces and rope to lining aeroplane wings in the Second World War. It's been used for sacking, refined bed linen, table linen, handkerchiefs and fishing netting."

In his book After a Fashion, author Robert O'Byrne chronicles how in the early part of the 20th century, linen production and its attendant industries, such as shirt-making, were one of the major sources of employment in Northern Ireland. In 1949, linen accounted for almost 29pc of manufacturing jobs - but by 1975, that figure stood at just 5pc.

In Galway, Aoibheann MacNamara and Triona Lillis of The Tweed Project conduct a conversation about linen with zeal. They, too, are modern-day champions of the fabric. They advocate using "indigenous fabrics as a truly authentic expression of Irish design".

"We have been working with linen from the very first day and our first collection was white linen shirts. We work with our indigenous Irish fabrics like tweed, linen and Irish knits," says Aoibheann.

In a new initiative launched last month, the pair released a limited-edition linen balloon dress. The oversized dress features a V-neck and is finished with puff sleeves. "Our plain-weave linen from Emblem Weavers has a gentle, billowing effect. It is very soft, with a lot of movement. We decided to do the dress in black and in white and we are keeping it simple," Aoibheann explains.

"The beauty is that linen lasts forever and we need to value it. What is really amazing is that it is antibacterial and anti-fungal, and I'm not sure people know that. Why would you be wearing something plastic as a mask when you can wear something natural?"

Let's hope our lockdown love affair with Irish linen lasts long beyond pandemic face masks - it's high time for this unique indigenous fabric to reclaim the limelight at home.

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