The secret life of design in Ulster’s interwar linen industry
: a critical analysis of the contributions of the Old Bleach Linen Company.

  • Catherine O'Hara

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The Ulster linen industry was renowned throughout the world for its high-quality linen products, making an easy transition from hand loom to power loom production in the mid nineteenth century where its craft origins advanced into highly profitable industrial scale manufacturing. Inevitably then, scholars of linen have tended to focus on its industrial history, encompassing the economic, business, political and social features and impact of the trade. Recent scholarship has taken a more nuanced approach by conceptualizing aspects such as gender and class particularly in the areas of production and consumption. However, the role of design within the linen industry in Northern Ireland has been largely overlooked by historians; this thesis attempts to partially redress this oversight.The popular view of linen is one usually formed around a familiarity with household linen goods, ‘fancy linens’ that were conventional in design and it seemed, remained so for many years. There is good reason for this perception as linen firms in their marketing amplified the putative concept of quality above any other product features. Nevertheless, a number of linen companies in Northern Ireland were committed to design as an integral part of their products and brand, none more so than The Old Bleach Linen Company from Randalstown; the case study for this thesis. This County Antrim firm, founded in 1864, quickly established a reputation for best quality linens of distinguished design work and one of the few linen firms to register their designs with the Board of Trade from the mid 1870s. By the turn of the 1930s, the Company expanded their already huge array of products by launching a range of linen furnishing fabrics which were readily acquired by notable museum collections, namely the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and The Manchester City Museum and Art Gallery. It is mainly this range of linen goods the thesis considers in the context of modernity (alongside alternative narratives of continuity and tradition)and the drive by reformers for exemplars of ‘good design’. Despite the terms ‘modern’ and ‘good’ often being used interchangeably by reformers, commercially minded textile manufacturers saw no conflict in producing diverse lines of modern, period, decorative, plain and figured designs in order to maximise as many markets and tastes as possible. In a period of slump, restricting one’s range was unthinkable. Even so, period and reproduction designs were often modern interpretations or at least, woven on state of the art power looms, there was nothing antiquated about them. Drawing on a rescued but sadly incomplete and uncatalogued privately held collection of Old Bleach material and a range of archives, special collections and libraries, across the United Kingdom, this research provides a new body of knowledge in the position of textile design in the province in relation to Great Britain. This thesis will make help recover the once lost design history of the Ulster textile industry during the interwar years and how it is situated within the Industrial Art Movement. In addition, it will fill a gap in the knowledge of one of Northern Ireland’s best known textile firms and add substantially to Ulster’s extant, if patchy, industrial history.
Date of AwardMay 2018
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorIan Montgomery (Supervisor) & Elizabeth Crooke (Supervisor)


  • Irish Linen
  • Irish Design
  • Ulster Linen
  • Irish Textile Industry
  • British Industrial Art Movement
  • Interwar Textiles
  • Design Reform
  • Modernity
  • Old Bleach Linen Company

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