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Deborah White, damask weaver

In 2019, Deborah was awarded £2,000 from the Endangered Craft Fund to help restore the Royal Loom. She aims to be designing and weaving her own linen damask on the loom when the restoration project is complete.

This project was generously supported by Allchurches Trust.

Deborah WhiteStopping in on his way home from school at his father’s workplace was an everyday occurrence for the young Vincent Green. What was not quite so everyday was the factory itself, nor indeed the work that his father James undertook. More than sixty years on he still vividly recalls the dimly-lit factory, the single bare lightbulb dangled above his father’s head, the cumbrous, almost primeval wooden loom with its mysterious complex of cords and lead weights, and the race of the shuttle and the rhythmic beat of the sley. On occasion his father would stop off from his work, dismount the seat board and sit himself on a concrete block to have a quick cup of tea and a chat with his son. Any curiosity the young Vincent displayed for the craft was, however, promptly dampened by his father. Though a third generation hand-loom weaver, James remained adamant that none of his seven children would continue the tradition. And in spite of his evident pride in weaving for the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II he remained firm in his conviction that weaving was ‘a dead-end street.’ The 1950s held the promise of better education and jobs, and that was the future he wished for his children.

The Royal LoomNone of his children ever did follow him into hand-loom linen damask weaving. Indeed, the industry came to a complete end soon after in 1968, closing a tradition that had spanned nearly three centuries in the Lurgan region of Ulster. The factory was abandoned and the loom itself dismantled, many of the point-paper designs and the Jacquard punch-cards heaped into piles and burnt, or left to rot in the open. The craft had indeed reached a dead-end. Fifty years later, however, a remarkable turn of events has shone a beam of hope for the craft. “Would I like to have a look at an old loom that has been lying in a barn” was a question that did not have to be asked twice. It proved to be a ten-quarter broad loom, and the owner was anxious that as a hand- loom linen damask weaver I take it into my care. Countless hours trawling through archival records, interviewing those involved in the last days of hand-loom weaving, opening up a past that had been mostly forgotten led to the realisation that the loom was in fact the ‘Royal loom’ that James Green wove on all those years ago, his name lightly scratched into the frame.

Allchurches TrustThe Heritage Crafts Association was quick to recognise its significance and its Endangered Crafts Fund grant has sparked a remarkable journey. Once supported by a network of ancillary crafts, hand-loom linen damask weaving now stands alone, the restoration of the loom necessarily drawing on a range of local artisans to make bespoke components, from Mark Hanvey, an exceptionally gifted cabinet maker to James Adair, a saddler with commissions from the Queen. Another, Andrew Hilary, a tool maker, works from the very factory in which the loom last stood! The scale of works and its complexity means it will be a long journey but one that will lead to the first broad-loom linen damask weaving in Ulster for over sixty years. It also affords a platform for my AHRC/NBC funded doctoral study of Irish hand-woven linen damask, and without the encouragement and support of the HCA none of this may have happened. So, it is thanks to them that a new pathway is being forged, an escape from the ‘dead-end’ that James Green had predicted all those years ago. How apt that it is his loom that has given us the chance.

 

Project outline

  • Project funding: £2,000 from the HCA Endangered Craft Fund
  • Project aim: To bring a historic linen damask handloom back into working order so that Lecale Looms can start production of damask linen in Northern Ireland.

This project was supported by Allchurches Trust.

 

  • Main photo: Examining the Royal Arms centrepiece of a tablecloth woven by James Green on the loom for Buckingham Palace in 1956.
  • Second photo: The main frame in the course of being re-built in the workshop.

Five grants awarded to help save endangered crafts

Richard Wheater teaching the craft of neon bending.

Richard Wheater teaching the craft of neon bending. Photo © Richard Wheater.

A new mobile facility to teach neon bending and the restoration of one of the last surviving damask looms are among the projects that have recently received funds to help ensure a better future for some of the UK’s most endangered crafts.

The Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), which earlier this year published the latest edition of its groundbreaking HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts, has awarded the first five grants from its Endangered Crafts Fund, launched in July 2019 to increase the likelihood of endangered crafts surviving into the next generation.

The first five recipients of the HCA Endangered Crafts Fund are:

  • Grace Horne, scissor maker – to create dies for the production of hot drop-forged scissor blanks that can be used by Grace and other makers to produce bespoke scissors.
  • Deborah White, damask weaver – to restore and use a loom to teach damask weaving to a new generation of weavers.
  • Clare Revera, basket maker – to develop and teach a Level 3 City & Guilds course on rare and endangered basket making skills at Westhope College.
  • Richard Wheater, neon bender – to build a mobile neon bombarding and vacuum facility to teach neon bending to beginners and intermediate trainees.
  • Kate Colin, fan maker – to develop the technical skills of fan making with a view to teaching the craft in future.

The fund was hugely oversubscribed and the HCA hopes to work with many of the unsuccessful candidates to identify other funding and support opportunities.

HCA Endangered Crafts Officer Mary Lewis said:

“We have been overwhelmed by so many wonderful applications and while we wish we had the funds to support them all, we are delighted to have been able to choose projects that we hope will provide future generations with an array of craft skills to which they might not otherwise have access.”

The Endangered Crafts Fund has been set up thanks to a number of generous donations from individuals, from as little as £5 right up to several thousands of pounds. The HCA is now seeking further donations to save even more of Britain’s most endangered crafts from oblivion.

Donations to the Endangered Crafts Fund are welcome at any time – for more information visit www.heritagecrafts.org.uk/ecf. Applications for grants are accepted on a rolling basis, with the next deadline for consideration 29 February 2020. For more information about the fund, email HCA Endangered Crafts Officer Mary Lewis at mary@heritagecrafts.org.uk.

Damask weaving (linen)

The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Damask weaving (linen)

 

The hand weaving of pure linen patterned damask fabric on jacquard looms.

 

Status Critically endangered
Craft category
Historic area of significance North East Ulster and Scotland
Area currently practised Lisburn, Northern Ireland;
Lecale, County Down, Northern Ireland;
Montrose, Scotland
Origin in the UK
Current no. of professionals (main income) 3
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
2
Current no. of trainees 0
Current total no. serious amateur makers
Current total no. of leisure makers
Minimum no. of craftspeople required

 

History

The art of linen damask weaving in Britain dates to the seventeenth century. It was prized by royalty and aristocracy for the breadth of elaborate patterns it afforded – armorial bearings, royal cyphers, historic commemorative events and heraldic designs.

In 1737 George II turned to Irish linen domestic weavers to provide napery for his household, foregoing European providers who to that point had dominated the market. From this time on, the British crown only ordered from British manufactories.

In France, in 1801, Joseph-Marie Jacquard perfected a semi-automatic mechanism for silk damask weaving, replacing the highly labour-intensive draw loom. It was soon adapted for linen damask weaving, reaching Britain by the 1820s.

In the 1850s, with the introduction of power loom weaving, linen damask weaving became fully automated, theoretically ending Jacquard linen damask weaving at a stroke. However, the power loom struggled to match its fineness, quality and soft handle.

Hand woven linen damask continued to be prized, and survived well into the twentieth century. With annual orders fulfilled by John Mc Collum’s Manufactory for Buckingham Palace, Windsor, and Sandringham his client list read like the pages from Debretts. In Ireland it continued as a commercial craft until the end of the 1960s, from which point it has been kept alive within museum settings.

 

Techniques

 

 

Local forms

  • 5 leaf: single damask
  • 8 leaf: double damask

 

Sub-crafts

  • Jacquard card cutting (3 practitioners known – one at 84 years old)
  • Traditional Damask Designing and Drafting (2 practitioners known)

Allied crafts:

  • Silk damask
  • Poplin damask (silk warp with wool weft)

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • The looms and apparatus are now so rare, they are usually museum artefacts.
  • No apprenticeship programmes current or pending.
  • Rarity of card cutting machines and operatives.

 

Support organisations

  • Irish Linen Centre / Lisburn Museum, Northern Ireland
  • Heritage Crafts Association.
  • Ulster University, Belfast School of Art, Faculty of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences.
  • Northern Bridge Consortium.
  • The Textile Society
  • The Theo Moorman Trust for Weavers.
  • National Museum Northern Ireland

 

Craftspeople currently known

  • Deborah White and Alyson McNamee, Irish Linen Centre
  • Ian Dale, House of Dun, Montrose, Scotland

 

Other information

Irish Linen Centre / Lisburn Museum employ two master weavers. However, there are no training schemes. Deborah White worked alongside one of the last traditional damask handloom weavers in Ireland and says it takes 5-7 years apprenticeship to master the trade.

Deborah White was awarded an AHRC / NBC Scholarship in September 2020 with Ulster University; PhD Topic: An Empirical Study of Hand loom Jacquard Design and Production in Ireland. White worked alongside one of the last traditional Damask hand- loom weavers in Ireland, from 1994-1999, after graduating from Ulster with a BA (hons) in Woven and Constructed Textile Design. Recent awards such as HCA’s Endangered Craft Award  (2019), The Textile Society’s Professional Development Award (2019), and The Theo Moorman Trust for Weavers Award (2019), have helped secure an independent practise.

 

References

  • Gill, C, (1921) The Rise of the Irish Linen Industry (Oxford)
  • Collins, B, and Ollerenshaw, P, (eds.) Industry, Trade and People in Irleand, 1650-1950
  • Crawford, W H, The Impact of the Domestic Linen Industry in Ulster