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William Clark — revolutionizing the finish of linen fabric

Houses built to the river’s height harness water power, women at the stream holding wooden clubs. In 1736, a beetling mill was built. In conversation with Duncan Neil, creative director at William Clark & Sons.

Irish linen used to be moon-bleached. Artisans would spread linen under the moonlight for a year until they achieved the shade they sought in the fabric. The village of Upperlands, situated in county Londonderry in Northern Ireland, is acquainted with the technique, owing its existence to the linen industry and the Clark family, who established the first linen mill there in 1736. Amidst green hills and vast wetlands, divided by various rivers, the small village offers the perfect grounds for what later became one of the most precious materials in the world. Home to the last beetling factory standing, William Clark & Sons has bleached and finished linen, marketing it in most parts of the world for almost 300 years since Jackson Clark had spotted the ideal location for a waterwheel that would drive a device called a beetling engine. 

Revolutionizing the finishing of linen fabric forever, today the company is experimenting with new forms of beetling in hopes of expanding commercially, as explained by the creative director of the company, Duncan Neil. When Duncan Neil joined William Clark as creative director three years ago, it was about the time they’d started experimenting with screen printing. Neil combined his expertise working with print with the William Clark fabric, familiarizing himself with all new styles. 

“Decorative fabrics were never a statement for the company but over the last few years this new area has been exciting for us”, he says. “We launched a brand that combined 21st-century printing techniques with natural materials”. The result is Earthed, a fabric range that launched with a collection called Upperlands, named after the village where the William Clark mill is situated. The technique, which is particularly popular amongst Savile Row (tailors looking for the characterful sheen offered by beetling) has evolved from its craft. 

When it comes to the oldest form of bleaching linen, hundreds of years have influenced the process of beetling. “The first stage involves bringing in the cloth in loop state form”, explains Neil. An initial processing stage would sort the linen by colour, form and get rid of any weaving impurities. It would then be bleached or dyed to the shade desired before the impregnation of the starch where the fabric is put through a starch trough and back again and brought off the machine wet.

From there it is then transported down to the beetling engine itself, the linen once starched goes onto the machine wet which is key in developing the highest sheen. Spread onto the beams of the machine, wooden hammers are then dropped onto the cloth as they pound away for a few hours. The machine is then paused and the operator will then swap over the ends so that the fabric that was on the top is then moved to the bottom and the process starts all over again. This process is repeated in cycles of varying hours, between 120 to 140 hours. “The key to the fabric going on damp, is that as it fully dries out, the fibers swell. They become wider but the constant pounding of the hammers flattens them at the same time. An open linen weave initially, when finished, will be completely closed and much finer for a real high character sheen,” suggests Neil. 

Since John Clark held his first web of bleached linen up to the light in the 1700s, the family have remained pioneers for beetling and the community that flourished around it. In the early days of the company that survived after centuries of a strife-filled Ireland, the Clarks were shipping linen to America, forty years before the Declaration of Independence in 1919. John Clark, who had made his fortune farming, corn milling and brewing before he partook in what was to become Ireland’s staple product, was the first of the Clarks to have picked up the fabric.

Following him, his son Jackson Clark, increasing his linen business, began retaining a web of natural cloth from local weavers and bleaching them on his farm before he would sell them — providing work for his three sons, including Alex Clark, who would later learn the technical skills of his father and grandfather using beetling.

In 1750 Alex and his brother John added a rubbing board driven by the same waterfall as the beetles which worked soap into the cloth by drawing it between two oscillating grooved planks. At the time, Upperlands possessed all the latest mechanical inventions. Originally a skillset developed by the French and bleaching by the Dutch, combining water power to the processing of linen actually came from Anglo-Irish inventors. 

From the 1830s his son, William Clark learned his ancestor’s trade and applied it to the marketplace where he would ac- quire the same instant judgement of a weaver’s web as possessed by his father and grandfather too. William managed to make small improvements almost every year. When trades began with the West Indies, garments sent out in puncheons would return filled with Jamaican rum and exports continued all over the world. Expanding worldwide, the village of Upperlands grew alongside the company with houses built to accommodate the growing work force. In 1880, fourteen cabins were built and entire row was built and named after the Craig family that inhabited it. Upperlands then owned thirty-eight beetling engines but still had no way of driving the machines without water power which left the company in trouble depending on weather conditions every year. 

In an extract from Wallace Clark’s The Linen on the Green, the first use of the beetle machine is recorded as thus, the first beetle was lifted nine inches by the shaft inside. The beetle poised for an agonising second or two, then fell on the cloth. Before it had time to complete its first bound, the next one was down. The others followed in rapid succession. For the first time, Upperlands echoed to the Drrr…um…De…De…Dum, Drrr…um..De..De.. Dum of a beetling engine… Close up, it was quite impossible to hear ordinary speech — the sound, orchestrated by the squeak and creak of the wheel, and the splash of water, was like forty wooden wheeled drays being galloped over a cobbled bridge. Looking back, it was the most dramatic moment in the history of the firm.

At the time, in 1830s Ireland, William spent time learning the various techniques of the trade and familiarizing his fingertips with the feel of the finish so the next lot could be produced exactly the same way. He continued, “the cloth had an even shine and firm handle which could never have been achieved by pounding it with a club on stones”. Prior to 1736, beetling would have predominantly been done by hand, “that tended to be a job that women did more often than men and involved standing at the stream with the fabrics placed over rocks which were literally beaten with wooden clubs”, he explains. The 1730s marked the first time that William Clark built a beetling mill.

The different beetling houses were built to the river height so that water power could be harnessed. At one time there were eight or nine beetling houses at various points on the river, whereas Clarks’ are the sole remaining ones today, powered by an electrical engine as a result of industrialization which also had an effect on the scale and size of the beetling machines. “The actual beetling process itself now is virtually un- changed for 140 years. Where there would be changes would be in the application and impregnation of the starch that is now done on much more modern equipment up at the factory. Previously it would have been trough and mangle whereas now we use some of the bigger finishing equipment”.

In 1846 and 1847 the famines of the forties hit, with potato crops failing and winters producing weeks of frost and snow, hundreds of thousands of people died of starvation. The famine left its marks on all aspects of life and only in the Northern parts of Derry “where the finest cloth was produced did cotton-weaving survive for another generation”. Traditionally fabric would have been bleached on dunes and wet cloth would be laid out and bleached over the summer months and completely depended on the weather producing different results according to the year.

During this time, virtu- ally no linen was produced. By the 1870s, the cotton famine struck all over the world and by then, Belfast Ireland was the largest linen producing area in the world often referred to as ‘Linenopolis’. Linen today is produced decoratively with various companies across Ireland producing linen for decorative fabrics and up until last year, Neil explained that the William Clark company had wondered if beetling linen was something they wanted to continue or not. 

“We’re a small company but I’d say sixty percent of our work- force comes from the village surrounding the factory. The lo- cation for us is everything. We exist because of the natural resources that are there and how the river flows through the site as the water can be harnessed”. The remaining beetler is in the village today and is very much at the heart of the village with the rumbling of the engines heard throughout. Experimenting in various forms of screen printing (rather than digital printing), different techniques of foiling are pushing the company forward into the new year in hopes of working on a more global scale in the future.

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