Ireland’s Female Weavers
During the Napoleonic War from 1803 to 1815 there were some 300,000 men in the British army and 140,000 in the Royal Navy. There were 13 Irish battalions who were almost exclusively recruited from Ireland. Some “English” battalions consisted of over 30% Irish recruits. It’s not known how many weavers left to follow the beat of the drum, but the number in the militia may be a clue. In 1802 the Irish Linen Board (a state supported funding board founded to protect the and expand the linen industry) cite 3,000 weavers who were now in the regiments of the militia. As a result, there was a shortage of male workers just at the time when linen canvas, duck, and sailcloth was in high demand for the war efforts.
Linen production had been expanding in Ireland since the mid-1700’s. Many Irish farm families grew flax that they processed, spun and wove into fabric in their home using the labor of their children and occasionally a servant or two. But traditionally it was the women who spun the fibers into thread, and the men would work the loom. But by the early 1800’s mechanization was also starting to supplement hand spinning. So on top of the shortage in male labor, industrialization was beginning to create a glut of coarse flax yarn.
It was recognized that women were needed to help meet the demand. It also suggested that encouraging women to become weavers could help raise poor families out of poverty as woman could make three times the income as a weaver compared to being spinning. But because of the increasing demand for linen, it was clear also that simple market forces would take too long for women to overcome the traditional gender roles in farm linen production. Therefore the Irish Linen Board created additional incentives. These incentives included cash rewards of 16 shillings/3 pence for the first 200 yards produced by a new weaver. Unfortunately, this meant new weavers would rush to meat the 200 yard mark by weaving lower quality fabric in lower thread counts. Therefore a premium was offered for higher thread counts. They also began distributing free looms. Although the weavers did not actually own the free looms, and could have them taken back if unannounced yearly inspections found that their quality, or production did not meet the required standards.
Over 1800 free looms were distributed between 1806 and 1809. The prize fund of the Tyrone committee was actually wiped out after 300 women claimed rewards in just six months. But demand for linen remained high even after the end of the war. So unlike “Rosie the Riveter” who joined the workforce during World War II, Irish women continued to work as weavers after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and had even been taking on apprentices to assist them. By 1821 it was possible for married couples to survive solely on their income from weaving without having to grow their own flax. By the 1850’s at least one third of the linen weavers in Ireland were women.