Keeping memory at hand

How a folk needlecraft tradition seeks to repair recent political violence…

Photographs: Kathy Bernett, Diana Cullum-Hall

Photographs: Kathy Bernett, Diana Cullum-Hall

Irish Linen Memorial (Photographs: Kathy Bernett, Diana Cullum-Hall)

Northern Ireland Linen Handkerchief Trade

Regarding Northern Ireland’s post-conflict shared future it befits my purposes here to share some historic links about trade unionism and cross-community social relations. The first Belfast female linen trade unionist was Saidie Patterson (1906 – 1985) who worked in the mills as a teenager and then, from 1960s – 80s as a peace activist, eventually winning 5 international peace awards before her death. She stated that making beautiful underwear and fine fancy domestic table and bed linens in the mills were all-very-well, but that the working class women from the Shankill (Protestant) and the Falls (Catholic) districts both came home from a day at the mill, exhausted and had to eat off of yesterday’s newspaper!

Linen is iconic in Northern Ireland culture for people of all political persuasion; it features in the poetry of Seamus Heaney and rock music by Billy Harrison (founder of the band ‘Them’ with Van Morrison) Both Heaney and Harrison commemorate their mother’s daily toil in poetic verse about linen – Heaney in the domestic setting and Harrison in recalling his mother’s job in the Belfast Mills. (One of my Names List soundscape readers, Jim Clinton, now an Australian, also had a mother who worked in the Belfast Linen factories, post World War II and died of a lung disease associated with textile workers.)

Handkerchief Designers Herbert and May Lilley and Belfast’s Linen Economy re: the non-sectarian Arts and Crafts Movement

The material culture that I “speak” through to recount the toll of the loss of life in Northern Ireland’s sectarianism has been The ‘fancy’ Irish Linen Handkerchief, which was central to the Edwardian Belfast economy and global trade for many years.  Edwardian Belfast was the largest producer of linen goods in the world; about 80 companies manufacturing and exporting linen handkerchiefs in Belfast as late as 1911. (Unlike the luddites,) Lilley embraced machine work as an enhancement of production and design.

The industrial textile industry survived on the employment of good designers such as Herbert and May Lilley who were also teachers of the art of embroidery. The Lilleys joined a firm of about a thousand workers. The 1910 Belfast art and design community claimed to be ‘non-sectarian’ and openly embraced the ‘non-political’ interest in the irish language and the Celtic myths and medieval illuminated manuscript imagery etc. while being influenced by the broader arts and crafts movement of the period (inspired by the writings of John Ruskin and William Morris).  But Herbert Lilley adjusted the utopian socialist vision of ‘the hand-made’ to his own situation of being a designer-craftsman working in the obviously vast industrial complex of Belfast’s linen industrial stronghold. Northern Ireland’s flax farming and linen manufacturing system evolved from N. Ireland’s colonial relations with Britain and poor conditions for the factory and cottage-worker underclass.

Herbert Lilley specifically worked on Handkerchief design in his career which spanned 1912 – 1950s) and was the subject of a recent retrospective and catalogue publication in Ulster. The ‘fancy Irish linen handkerchief’, as a domestic good, is held as precious within Irish cultural memory as a commemorative device and souvenir for a place or event, as well as an ideal Goodbye gift for the traveler.

Description of the craftivist, embroidered Irish Linen Memorial

In the Irish Linen Memorial, the handkerchief (each with ten embroidered names of those killed and a spot of my sewn hair) is the central unit for the counter-monument. The Linen handkerchief Memorial was conceptualized in late 1999, after a chronological Names List was published of those killed in the sectarianism; — the sewing is finally finishing up these last two months of 2009. Please see ; included is the digitalization of the handkerchiefs for the website and a Names Reading soundscape.

The (Irish) Linen Memorial has been completed thanks to 50 charity craftivists, concerned with anti-violence, peace and reconciliation and cross-community relations in Northern Ireland, after The Troubles. It was conceived in 1999, after I was working in Belfast’s inner-city, cross-community or interface neighbourhood and after I read Lost Lives, a published names list. Back in 1999, there was no neutral site for a traditional memorial for joint public mourning in Northern Ireland. Still today, in post-conflict N. Ireland, this idea is still problematic. Such an artwork-monument, while it contains a ‘neutral’ list of names of all those killed, chronologically, could/can possibly instigate further violence between persons/communities on either side of the political divide and that was/is not my intention.

I hope Craftivism, as a movement, purports for ‘The Pitiful’ and ‘The Human’- in- art , as Paul Virilio, world renowned theorist on ‘Art and Fear ‘ and the de-humanising hyperviolence of TV imagery, reiterates.

As an activist – craftivist, I am concerned about a sustainable environment and sustainable communities. I credit my colleagues who were involved in the civil rights movements of the 1960/70s with the fact that I am still making art today. Art historian Dr. Gloria Orenstein states that the links of contemporary arts with activism for the environment and egalitarianism is a return to the utopian dreamlike visions / imagery apparent in the paintings of the female surrealists, such as Leonora Carrington.


H.R. Lilley Artist and Designer by H.J. Bruce, Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and the Cultural Traditions Group of the Community Relations Council, Belfast. (no date; 2008 is likely) ISBN 1-8982 76-15B pp. 2 – 34

Australian Digital Thesis link: Lycia Trouton An intimate monument (re)-narrating ‘the troubles’ in Northern Ireland