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The Original Spinsters: The Role of Women in the Ulster Domestic Linen Industry

by Familia Ulster Genealogical Review: No. 23, 2007


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by Linde Lunney

"In the early years of the linen time, women did some weaving on narrow, bandle looms, to produce fabric for the shirts and petticoats of their own families. Women were also responsible for spinning flax tow into linen yarn, to be woven either in their own families or taken to market to be sold to supply looms in other households, sometimes at a distance. Four or even five spinners were needed to make the thread that one full-time weaver could process on a handloom; not every weaver had the necessary family support, and consequently, spinners would either supply their own menfolk, or if they had no one to weave for, could add to family income or support themselves by selling their thread. Many women became very proficient: newspapers of the day record the achievements of spinners who could spin almost incredible amounts of the finest thread from a given quantity of flax, and premiums were awarded by the Dublin Society."

This article looks at the role of women in the Ulster Domestic Linen Industry, using some of the best sources of information about their lives - a number of small books of verse, published in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Ulster. In these it is possible to hear the voices of individuals who grappled with the problems of their place and time, celebrated their friends and satirised their enemies.