When Belfast stood for something

The York Street mill.

The York Street mill. From the book “A Life in Linenopolis”.

For bookbinding, I like to use York Street linen thread – because it is strong, does not fray and feels completely solid.

But it is also virtually “extinct”.

My first spool came from a crafter friend here in Singapore who got it from a tailor who was clearing out his stock. With its old-style label and still pristine condition, the thread looked like it was built to last forever.

Then I came across the name again when I saw a few spools languishing at a shop at Textile Centre here in Singapore.

They looked like they have been at the bottom of the shelf for ages, overwhelmed by much cheaper Chinese and Thai polyester threads that lined the entire wall.

A quick Internet search revealed that the York Street threads are indeed antique-grade: The York Street company from Belfast, Ireland went bust back in 1961.

However, the spools I have today look as good as new, and is a testament to the quality produced by this famous mill.

The story of York Street is the story of the rise and fall of Belfast’s linen industry.

In the 1800s during the industrial revolution, the textile industry in the UK was completely transformed by technology. Steam-powered mechanised spinning of flax had been introduced by John Kay in 1825 and quickly replaced hand-spinning.

In Belfast, linen manufacturing rose rapidly to replace cotton as its main economic activity.

The York Street Factory.

The York Street Factory. From the book “A life in Linenopolis”.

The York Street mill can be traced to the Mulholland family, who owned three cotton mills near York Street.

When the mills were burned down in 1828, the three Mulholland brothers decided to rebuild them for spinning linen instead.

Their judgement paid off handsomely soon after the mills were reopened in 1930, and their success attracted other troubled cotton spinners and investors to flax spinning.

By 1856, the York Street mill had 25,000 spindles — the biggest of its kind in the world.

YorkStreetGirls(Art.com)~

Ladies working at the York Street mill. From Art.com.

The American Civil War (1861-1865) disrupted cotton supply to Europe and Irish linen quickly took up the slack.

Up until WWI, Belfast reigned supreme in the trade and came to be known as “Linenopolis”. It was the linen capital of the British Empire, as Manchester was its cotton capital.

The linen industry was, however, dealt a heavy blow when the cotton industry underwent a revival in early 20th century.

The arrival of synthetic fibres also hastened the decline of Irish linen.

By mid 20th century, demand had fallen to such a level that its only real customers were hotels, restaurants and airlines who relied on linen to make a statement.

The York Street Flax Spinning Company Limited finally closed in 1961.

So if you have any of this York Street linen thread, do treasure it. It has a proud history and is quality from a different era.

130308-LinenYorkStreet~

I got mine from Sin Hin Chuan Kee, a long-time sewing accessories shop on North Bridge Road, Singapore.

The yellow shop I got my York Street linen thread from has been around for generations.

The yellow shop I got my York Street linen thread from has been around for generations.

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7 thoughts on “When Belfast stood for something

  1. Just brought the last spool of York Street Linen thread at Sin Hin Chuan Kee.Was trying to find linen thread for some leather sewing then i found ur blog after some googling,went there straightaway and buy it.

  2. In the late 1950s, my father was a sales representative for York Street in the Midwest of United States. I was a young boy, and I was curious about the world of business.

    Alas, he was not optimistic about the future of linen, for example Kleenex and other paper facial tissues were replacing the need for linen handkerchiefs, and no one seem to be interested in using linen tablecloths anymore.

    Thank you for your wonderful research on this company.

    • Thanks for sharing! I was back at the shop and the shop owner showed me their new stock of linen threads from the US. Much smaller spool, waxed, good quality, but much more expensive. But they are another brand — “Crawford”. On its website, the Irish Linen Guild says, “Crawford Thread is another linen thread which claims to be Irish Linen and is relatively easily bought online, but we don’t know where this is produced; again it may be old stock.” It’s just not the same.

  3. Fascinating stuff – my grandfather, Sir Harry Mulholland, was the last Chairman of York Street and my father, 5th Baron Dunleath, was their flax buying director in Belgium 1951 – 1959, so I spent the first 8 years of my life there in Kortrijk/Courtrai. We still have York Street bed linen and hand towels and I bought a reel of their thread on e-bay just last week from the USA

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