Braidwater Linen: taking it back to the future

BALLYMENA’S linen history will be celebrated at a unique event being held aspart of this year’s Ballymena Arts Festival.

This event at The Braid on Saturday, April 20 will be a celebration of Ulster’s premier industry from its origins in the late 17th Century to the present day.

The story of lint-dams, rivers, weirs, carries, sluice-gates, lades, mills and factories - through lint-pullers, scutchers, spinners, weavers, winders, bleachers, dyers and beetlers - to the finest of Irish Linen.

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‘Braidwater Linen’ however is really all about celebrating the fact that the production of Irish Linen is alive and well to this very day.

Willie Drennan, who has created a new stage performance for the evening concert points out that the Mid Antrim area was one of the prime areas in Ulster for linen production: from the growing of flax to weaving and finishing.

The Braidwater Spinning Mill until recent times was the largest of many local factories that employed thousands of local people and Ballymena had the largest Linen Market outside of Belfast.

The Linen Market will operate in The Braid from 2pm to 4.30pm and the highlights will be the demonstrations: on spinning-wheel, weaving-loom, natural dyeing, embroidery, spade-making and shoe-making.

There will be locally produced linen cloth and locally crafted clothing, shoes, jewellery, spades, fifes and art-work - on display and available for purchase.

This will take place in The Braid centre’s suitably futuristic atrium and will be coordinated by Marion and Hermann Baur.

This German couple restored and have been operating the Derrylane Flaxmill, in County Londonderry, for the past 21 years.

They are inspirational pioneers who have been playing a crucial role in the salvaging, sustaining and transporting of our precious heritage into the future.

As well as the market and demonstrations there will be talks, and short films in the Braid’s Learning Zone.

It will indeed be a learning zone as Bruce Clark will provide great insight into the history of Irish Linen, and will explain why it is still a living industry.

Bruce, a well-known writer for The Economist, is an amateur historian and a family member of the ’Clarks of Upperlands’ - one of Ulster’s internationally celebrated Irish Linen companies.

The beetling mill in Upperlands still produces the finest beetled linen for such places as London’s Savile Row.

Bruce is clearly enthusiastic about all things linen and will be bringing along a very special guest: from Viginia, USA.

Nancy Sorrells is a historian with a keen interest in the Scotch-Irish and Nancy will explain how Ulster folk played a major role in all aspects of linen production in 18THand 19th Century USA.

And that’s not all. While this is all going on there will be a chance to cut loose on the dance floor in the Studio Theatre.

Local man Derek Montgomery will be giving a workshop on Ulster Country Dance.

This is the social dancing that was hugely popular in Ulster up until the mid- 20th Century. The dances included ‘The Lancers’ and ‘Quadrilles’ but Derek will offer a couple of simple local dances that, even you, can learn on the spur of the moment.

If not you’ll still be able to stomp your feet to the fiddle and go “Ye ha!” if you feel like it.

An evening concert, ‘Braidwater Linen’, and Linen Fashion Show will start at 7.30 pm.

This will feature Willie Drennan with members of his Ulster-Scots Band: on fiddles, accordion, flutes, harp, and loud drums.

Performers on stage will include music supremo John Trotter and they will be joined on stage by local harpist Cherith Boyle… and the newly formed for-the-occasion –the six piece ‘Braidwater Lasses’.

With Hermann Baur on stage as narrator, this performance will depict how our local social history has been moulded by Irish Linen.

Stirring music and song will provide emotive insight.

Willie Drennan has created new material for this show but the repertoire will include two pieces from The Bard of Dunclug, David Herbison, and a newly arranged version of the popular local ballad, Bonnie Woodgreen.

There will be a grand finale with Willie’s full band on stage celebrating ‘the taking back to the future’, of our heritage.

This will include at least one rendition of fifes and Lambeg, but for once Willie might just be out-staged on the night.

The stage will be extended to create a cat-walk for models to show-off the very latest in linen fashion.

The star model will be the stunning Orla McNichol, and rumour hath it that Derek Montgomery will be dazzling the ladies in the audience as he embarks on a new career for himself. A big night out in Ballymena - not to be missed.