Linen Thread Spinning in America
Just as the English cotton spinners (the Coats, Clarks, and others) invested in the U. S. textile industry in the middle-late 1800s, the British also invested in spinning linen thread. In Great Britain, the linen thread industry was dominated by three family groups: the Barbour family (whose original enterprise was founded in 1784 by a Scot, John Barbour, who migrated along with many other Scots to Northern Ireland), the Knox family, and the Finlayson family. Americans will recognize these names as members of these same families moved into North Carolina and other colonies and brought the Presbyterian Church to America. Each of these families had mills in Great Britain and, by the 1880s, in the U. S.: Robert Barbour of Lisburn, just west of Belfast, Northern Ireland first came in 1864 and built the Barbour Flax Spinning Co. on Spruce Street in Paterson, N.J. and opened a New York sales office (2, 4, 7), the Knox family of Kilburnie, near Paisley and in North Grafton, Mass. (5) Paisley was the headquarters of the Clark families who were cotton spinners. Some, if not all, of these American mills were built in response to the U. S. tariff on imported goods. The largest and most important of these linen thread works was built in Paterson beginning in 1864 with the acquisition of an existing mill. There, under the management of three Barbour brothers (Thomas, Robert and Samuel) (3), the firm produced and marketed linen thread nationally. The Finlayson family began investing in 1881.
In 1891 the Co. brought out a book named Barbours Prize Needlework Series – A Treatise on Lace-Making, Embroidery and Needle Work, featuring 24 cash prizes ranging from $5 to $10, printed by the Barbour Brothers Company. The ranges of flax used for the above ranged from size 40 up to 120. ( U.S. publication ) Robert Barbour died in 1892 and passed control to his son. The Co. received highest awards at the World’s Fair, 1893, also at the Fair of Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics’ Association, Boston, 1895.
Just as competition in the late 1800s forced the cotton spinners to merge in Britain and the U. S., the linen spinners also proposed mergers. In 1898, Col. William Barbour proposed a merger of the Barbour mills with the Marshall Linen Mills of Kearney (Newark, NJ) (also founded by Scots) (6), and the Finlayson mills in Mass. The Linen Thread Company, Inc. was formed and was the largest manufacturer of flax thread in the U. S. This sturdy thread was used extensively in sewing carpet and for sewing buttons on outerwear.
- Wilkins, Mira, 1989. The History of Foreign Investment in the United States to 1914. Harvard University Press Cambridge, Mass.
- The Bergen County (N.J.) Record, May 26, 2008
- Nelson, William, 1882. History of Bergen and Passaic Counties, New Jersey, with biographical…; Google accessed April 2010.
- Barbour mill history in New Jersey http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~njpchsgc/bus/barbour_mill_history.pdf Accessed April 2010
- Knox mill Brookfield Factory http://www.bvph-museum.com/page_1237505788390.html
- Marshall Linen Mills, Kearney, NJ New York Times 1894.
- Hall, Henry, Ed. 1896 America’s Successful Men of Affairs. An Encyclopedia of Contemporaneous Biography, New York Tribune, Vol. II. p62.
Images of Barbour’s Linen Thread made in N. Ireland mid-20th century
Courtesy of Peter Metzke