When it comes to making Irish linen—which we’ve called “The Rolls Royce of fabric”—Fergusons is second to none. First founded in 1854, it stands today as the last remaining jacquard weaver in Ireland and has made everything from household linens for the Danish royal family to costumes for Game of Thrones.
To understand how Irish linen became synonymous with quality, and why it remains in high demand today, we spoke with Fergusons managing director Judith Neilly.
“The Irish people have always worn linen,” Neilly says. “They would have slept in linen, they would have hung linen as curtains, they used linen for absolutely everything because it lasts.”
Neilly is quick to list the many ways that the textile’s natural properties have been utilized over the centuries. Thanks to its natural antibacterial properties, it was used to store perishable foods and even to make Casanova-era contraceptives. Its high absorbency and ability to both wick and evenly distribute moisture saw it used in fever blankets, which experienced something of a comeback during the Covid-19 pandemic. It was also the preferred shirting fabric for those worried about taking a musket ball in the chest, as its long fibers were unlikely to fragment and cause infection as was the case with cotton (Neilly notes that Horatio Nelson wore a linen shirt while he lay wounded at Trafalgar, though in this case the admiral was too far gone to be saved by the miraculous fabric).
While the Irish have used linen in daily life since time immemorial, it’s thanks to the heavy-handedness of their British occupiers that the isle became synonymous with the textile. The Irish were once known for their wool production, but in an effort to protect its own domestic industry the British crown forced them to lay down their shears. In response, the Irish put all their effort into making linen, which became an essential textile after the American Civil War cut off cotton exports to Europe.
The dawn of the modern era saw new uses for Irish linen. During the First World War, its light weight saw it utilized in the construction of early warplanes, where it would be stretched over the plane’s metal frame and covered in glue for stiffness (even today, Fergusons continues to specially weave linen for use in restoring vintage airplanes). It was later used, in the Second World War, to create auxiliary fuel tanks that allowed Allied planes to penetrate deeper into Europe.
However, the Irish linen industry wouldn’t fly high forever. As happened with many textile industries, offshoring in the 80s decimated makers. According to Neilly, Northern Ireland alone would have had over 1,000 linen mills around the time of the Second World War: now only a fraction of that number remains.
To explain the continued longevity of Fergusons, Neilly cities two factors: an unwillingness to compromise quality, and the early adoption of modern milling technology. Fergusons was the first among its competitors to switch from manual looms to mechanical, computer-powered looms, a switch that allowed it to downsize from 300 looms to around a dozen while retaining the same manufacturing capacity.
Today Fergusons supplies linen to European fashion houses, royal families, and even supplies embroidered badges to the British military, a commission it’s held for centuries. More recently, it’s gotten involved in the film biz, where Neilly has found new applications for linen’s wondrous capabilities.
When the makers of Pirates of the Caribbean realized that the heavy melton wool jackets worn by its British redcoats were causing actors to faint, they turned to Neilly for a solution, who designed new jackets that had wool on the outside and sweat-wicking linen on the inside. And when Game of Thrones wanted to make fur costumes without real fur, they asked Neilly if it could be made from linen. Though initial attempts at knitting the strong fabric proved unsuccessful, Neilly’s sister—a blind knitter of considerable talent—discovered a way to weave linen into a convincing faux-fur. Neilly would go on to design 137 fabrics for the long-running HBO series.
While much of what Fergusons produces is sold under other labels, we’re proud to carry a most unusual beach blanket designed by Neilly herself. Fergusons Irish Linen Beach Towel sports a detailed skull motif inspired by a tattoo Neilly saw worn by a rough-looking character in a local pub.
“I saw a bloke in a bar with a tattoo, and I said ‘Oh, that’s lovely—can I take a picture of your tattoo?’ And I wove it,” she says.
This may seem like an unusual way for an esteemed heritage mill to put out product, but according to Neilly, design comes first. “We lead by design, and everybody in the factory has to have some kind of design capability. It makes a massive difference.”
From curtains to airplanes to beach towels, the inimitable qualities of Irish linen continue to amaze, particularly when stamped with a unique motif you won’t find anywhere else.