As a linen and fabric fan, a small hoard has been gathered over the years as part of my passion for the discarded, the overlooked or the lost. A recent rummage has prompted me to blog about the Old Bleach Linen co, an Irish linen company with a fascinating and long history of textile manufacturing in Randalstown, Northern Ireland.
Irish linen is known for its quality which is put down to the climate in Ireland which is perfect for the growth of flax and over hundreds of years the low worker costs and high demand resulted in Ireland becoming a dominant force in linen production.
1909 New York dealer Advert for Old Bleach Linen
The Old Bleach company was started by a quaker called Charles J Webb in 1864, and started out using the age old method of linen production, where the flax was hand pulled, stacked and left to dry, before being processed to separate the seeds and core to leave the fibres. The resulting woven fabric was "bleached" by laying out in the open air, and this old method of bleaching continued to be used by the company during its long history. By the 1930's the company was a large textile manufacturer employing a workforce of over 1000 people, using the nearby railway to help export their textiles and linens all over the world.
A photo postcard showing the Randalstown mill C 1940s
Furnishing fabric advert from late 1940's
As the company expanded, they commissioned textile designs from leading artists and they were also one of the first companies to perfect screen printing of designs onto textiles. The company produced a portfolio of design samples for the festival of Britain, bringing together science and design by using a pattern produced by crystallographer Helen Megaw which produced some striking patterns on their fabric samples. The company supplied fabric and textiles to prestigious customers over their long history such as furnishing fabric for HMS Queen Mary, designed for the company by Norman Webb. The V & A has a collection of old bleach furnishing fabric designs produced by designers from the 30s - 50's such as Paul Nash & Marion Dorn which you can view online.
advert for designer fabrics
The company also produced the miniature textiles and linens for "the Queens Dolls House", and went on to retail similar miniature towel sets when the dolls house went on public show.
Old Bleach Dolls House towel set box info
workers hand painting the flowers on damask C early 1950s
The strategy of using designers of the day, new dye techniques and producing quality products helped to keep the company at the forefront of Irish linen production. In 1971 the company was acquired by Carrington Viyella (which was the merger of 2 companies called Carrington Dewhurst and Viyella)
Production in Ireland and the trade name "old bleach" continued after the buyout throughout the 1970's, with a prolific output that is still snapped up by vintage and retro fans today - Rural Retro favorite Belinda Lyon produced several designs for Old Bleach tea towels during the 1970's.
The Old Bleach co employed generations of families from the local town during their long history and the proud workers formed lots of "old Bleach" recreation and sports clubs such as bowling, tennis and hockey. Some of these mill worker clubs are still in existence today in Randalstown such as the local cycling and bowling clubs.
At the start of the 1980's the Old bleach mill was closed as part of cost saving by Carrington Viyella as the luxury linen industry declined and demand turned to cheaper man made fibres imports. The trade name continued for a couple of years - labeled as "made in the UK" before the “Old Bleach“ linen company Ltd was formally dissolved in 1982. The closed mill was left disused until most of the buildings were eventually demolished during the 1990's - a story familiar across the linen mills in Ireland.