Design & illustration

Old Bleach Linen Company

The Old Bleach Linen company is an Irish linen company with a fascinating and long history of textile manufacturing in Randalstown, Northern Ireland.

Irish linen is known for its quality due to the climate in Ireland which is perfect for the growth of flax and over hundreds of years  the low worker costs and high demand resulted in Ireland becoming a dominant force in linen production.

Old Bleach Linen advert 1909
1909 New York dealer Advert for Old Bleach Linen
Old Bleach linen advert 1949
1949 Old Bleach advert

Early Days of Linen Production

The  Old Bleach company  was started by a quaker called Charles J Webb in 1864, and  started out  using the  age old method of linen production, where the flax was hand pulled, stacked and left to dry, before being processed to separate the seeds and core to leave the fibres. The resulting woven fabric was “bleached” by laying out in the open air, and this  old method of bleaching  continued to be used by the company during its long history.  By the 1930’s  the company was a large textile manufacturer employing  a workforce of over 1000 people, using the nearby railway to help export their textiles and linens all over the world. 

Old Bleach Linen Randalstown mill 1940's
the Randalstown mill and grounds circa 1940’s. Photo: Old postcard
Old Bleach Linen company workers
Inside the factory – date unknown. Photo: old postcard

Textile Designs

As the company expanded, they commissioned textile designs from leading artists and they were also one of the first companies to perfect screen printing of designs onto textiles. The company produced a  portfolio of design samples for the festival of Britain, bringing together science and design by using a pattern produced by crystallographer Helen Megaw which produced some striking  patterns on their fabric samples. The company supplied fabric and textiles to prestigious customers over their long history such as furnishing fabric for  HMS Queen Mary, designed for the company  by Norman Webb. The V & A has a collection of old bleach furnishing fabric designs produced by  designers from the 30s – 50’s such as Paul Nash & Marion Dorn which you can view online.

1950s Old Bleach furnishing fabric from V & A collection
Old Bleach 1950s furnishing fabric. Photo: V & A collection
Old Bleach advert for furnishing fabric
Old Bleach advert for their designer furnishing fabrics

Queen Marys Dolls House

The company also produced the miniature textiles and linens for Queen Mary’s Dollhouse, and went on to retail miniature sets of linen such as “Dolly’s Towels” when the dolls house went on public show at the British Empire exhibition. 

Old Bleach linen in the Queens Dolls House.
Old Bleach linen in the Queens dolls house. Photo: one of a set of postcards produced of the interior rooms.

The strategy of using  designers of the day, new dye techniques and producing quality products helped to keep the company at the forefront of Irish linen production.

Old Bleach hand painted damask
workers hand painting the flowers on damask C early 1950s

In 1971 the company was acquired by  Carrington Viyella (which was the merger of 2 companies called Carrington Dewhurst and  Viyella)
Production in Ireland and the trade name “old bleach” continued after the buyout throughout the 1970’s, with a prolific output that is  still snapped up by vintage and retro fans today.

Mill Worker Clubs

The Old Bleach co employed generations of families from the local town  during their long history  and the proud workers  formed lots of “old Bleach” recreation and sports clubs such as bowling, tennis and hockey. Some of  these mill worker  clubs are still in existence today in Randalstown such as the local  cycling and bowling clubs.

Old Bleach co. bowling club badge
Old Bleach Bowling Club badge

Demise of the Old Bleach Linen Mill

At the start of the 1980’s the Old bleach  mill was closed  as part of cost saving by Carrington Viyella as the luxury linen industry declined and  demand turned to cheaper man made fibres imports. The trade name continued for a  couple of years  –  labeled as “made in the UK”  before the “Old Bleach“ linen company Ltd was formally dissolved in 1982.  The closed mill was left disused until most of the buildings were  eventually demolished during the 1990’s – a  story familiar across the linen  mills in Ireland.

The Old Bleach Linen Co. Randalstown
The Old Bleach Linen Co. Randalstown disused mill shortly before demolition

4 replies on “Old Bleach Linen Company”

My dad, David Dobbin worked at the Old Bleach Linen Factory I think in the early 1950s. He was a member of the cycling club, I have a bronze/brass medallion for a race he was in. He came to NZ in 1955.

Yes it is still going, they sent me a cap and some stickers, they asked I send a copy of the medal which I did.

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