Through the eyes of Heather Richardson

Mention the word ‘laboratory’ and the image that springs to mind is scientists in white coats and safety glasses, test tubes in hand, Bunsen burners at the ready. The Linen Lab isn’t quite like that, but like all good laboratories it kicked off by conducting a well-planned experiment, assembling the essential ingredients to see what reactions occur when they’re mixed together.

In this case, the ingredients were a group of artists and designers, brought together in the inspiring surroundings of the F E McWilliams Gallery. While we each have different artistic practices – print, embroidery, fine art, design and narrative textiles – one thing we all have in common is a fascination with linen: both its properties as a material and its role in the past and present of Banbridge. And the purpose of this particular day in the lab was to kick off a yearlong experiment-in-linen that will culminate in an exhibition at the gallery in autumn 2019. Along the way we’ll be working with children, young people and the wider community, so that they can share in and contribute to our discoveries.

One of the highlights of the day was a tour of the Thomas Ferguson Irish Linen factory – the last remaining commercial linen weaver in Northern Ireland. I have to confess, I love factories. One of my happiest memories is of a visit to the Thermos glassworks at Thetford in Norfolk, watching those lovely silvery innards of Thermos flasks roll out of the glass-blowing machines and down the production line. So I was geekily beside myself with excitement at the thought of visiting Ferguson’s.

Our guide at Ferguson’s was Design and Development director Judith Neilly. Judith is a creative force of nature – a woman who can spot a design idea where most people would see nothing, and then work out how to turn it into linen. Her passion for Ferguson’s was obvious, and she explained the company’s pride and commitment to producing high-end textiles and finished products. She took particular delight in showing us samples of the bespoke fabric created for films and TV series like Game of Thrones.

Getting an industrial loom set up to weave is a time consuming business, with thousands of warp threads needing to be put in place before an inch of cloth can be woven. Once that’s done the machine rattles on with its work. And it’s noisy work – all the staff wear ear defenders as they move between the looms, and we were equipped with earplugs for this part of our tour. We were able to watch the fabric taking shape before our eyes – everything from snow-white damask to monogrammed lining fabric for designer handbags. In spite of mechanization, much of the work at Fergusons is very much hands-on, with a small team of expert machinists hemming heirloom tablecloths and luxurious bed sheets.

Of all Judith’s anecdotes, the story that really stayed with me was the one about how she turned a schoolgirl into a textile designer – and all in the course of one week’s work experience. Judith wanted to offer something more than the usual dreary work experience tasks of tea making and photocopying, so together they looked through the pictures the girl had posted to her Instagram feed for images with design potential. Once they’d selected a photo – a bird’s-eye snap of an ice cream sundae – they set to work on turning it into a jacquard fabric design. Judith got samples woven in a range of colourways, so that the girl finished her work experience week with a portfolio of professionally produced fabric. How many companies can offer that sort of experience to a teenager?

By the end of the day we were all bubbling with ideas, and left Ferguson’s laden with overruns of fabric and spools of linen yarn to start playing with. Because this is the point of the Linen Lab. It’s about experiment, and playfulness, and discovering ways of working with linen that we haven’t yet thought of. So let’s get started!