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