Costume Society, Costume Society Ambassadors | December 11, 2016
Linen Ladies: Reclaiming Ireland’s female textile heritage
The term ‘Millie’ or ‘Milly’ in Irish slang (particularly in the North of Ireland) is a derogatory term that refers to women who live in impoverished areas, predominantly those within the inner-city areas of Belfast and Dublin. These areas were once home to large linen, cotton and flax mills that provided a form of low-paid income to the original generation of Millies. This is where this pejorative term originates from, as the ancestors of the current generation of Millies were Millies in the sense that they worked in the mills. This blog post examines how one might work to reclaim the term Milly through acknowledgement of how important these women were in the history of Irish fashion and textiles.
Women who worked in the mills, some up to the mid-1970s, provided a much-needed income to what have always been traditionally deprived areas of inner-city Ireland. In Belfast, these women worked in mills such as Conway Mill, Mackie’s Jute Mills and the York Street Mill (which was at one stage, the largest linen mill in the world). They stood for hours on end at flax spinning machines making sure they matched their daily quota of linen, while making sure they didn’t get caught in the machinery as this could cause instant death or serious injury.
Initially, mill workers wore long skirts and shirts with a shawl, becoming known as Shawlies, as pictured in figure 1. As fashion changed, working in the mill became less hazardous as women wore shorter dresses and skirts and had shorter hair that would not get caught in the machinery. Throughout the long period of mills in Ireland, many women whom made material for consumption by the fashionable public sought to wear such clothes themselves. Many women kept scraps of linen (normally against regulations) to make dresses that were normally beyond their financial remit, and the majority of Millies were able to produce garments working from a basic pattern.
These women produced fabric that was used by fashionable women, couturiers and dress-makers across the world. To this day, Irish linen is still considered to be of a superior fabric quality. After a spike in linen and jute production in World War Two, mills across Ireland began to close as competition from abroad meant that it was cheaper to produce linen outside of Ireland. Conway Mill closed in the 1970s, and prior to this York Street and Mossley Mills also closed their doors. The last mill or factory to produce linen or flax in the Belfast area closed in 2011, taking with it the last of Belfast’s linen producing history. Fortunately, many the archives of many of the Belfast mills have been preserved in museums for future generations.
If these women were so essential to the fabric and textile production of prior generations sartorial habits, how then did Milly become a derogatory term? There are many theories on this but one of the main reasons this word is now used in an undesirable manner is that women who are called Milly are descendants of the original Millies. Additionally, where the mills once stood there is now low-income or council housing and with the absence of the traditional mill for an income, the term has filtered down to the current occupants of the former mill sites.
Throughout Belfast, women, historians, curators and other like-minded people have started to reclaim Milly in terms of a celebration of how integral these women were in the fashion and textile history of Ireland. There is a bus and walking tour of Belfast’s textile history that highlights how important these women were in Belfast’s industrious past. Additionally, for people like myself whose female relations worked in linen mills, to use Milly in a negative manner is an insult to their memory. These women helped carve the way for women working outside of the home after marriage, provided a much-needed income for poor families as well as contributing to an integral part of fashion, dress and textile history.
(1) A History of Irish Linen, <http://www.wmclark.co.uk/a-history-of-irish-linen/>.
(2) Kathleen Curtis Wilson, Irish People, Irish Linen, (Athens, OH; Ohio University Press, 2011).
(3) Kathleen Rankin, The Linen Houses of County Antrim & North Down (Belfast; Ulster Historical Foundation, 2012).
Rachel Sayers, Costume Society Ambassador, 2016.