War, Gender, and Industrial Innovation: Recruiting Women Weavers in Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland

By McKernan, Anne | Journal of Social History, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

War, Gender, and Industrial Innovation: Recruiting Women Weavers in Early Nineteenth-Century Ireland


McKernan, Anne, Journal of Social History


Much has been written about the participation of women in war production during the twentieth-century but virtually nothing about women engaged in producing wa materiel during the Napoleonic war.(1) When the treaty of Amiens failed to secure a lasting peace in 1802, Britain geared up for what turned out to be twelve years of continuous warfare. Demands for vital war materiel such as clot for uniforms and canvas for sails increased just as men were withdrawn from the work force to serve in the army and navy. The demand for outfitting armies and ships was only one dimension of the increased market demand for cotton, woolen and linen textiles. War disrupted normal trade patterns, and presented British and Irish textile producers with expanded commercial opportunities to increase their market share in the Caribbean; continental weavers (French and German) normally supplied major sectors of this market. Linen-making in Ireland was sex-linked; traditionally, women spun and men wove. The withdrawal of men from the weaving work force for armed service, consequently, created a shortfall in the number of weavers available to maintain current production levels, let alon to supply expanding markets. Wartime, then, brought conditions conducive to change in the Irish linen industry, both in the composition of its gendered wor force, and in the application of new technologies to spinning flax and weaving linen.

This paper will analyze the initiatives of innovative linen merchants (drapers and bleachers) to meet new exigencies created by the Napoleonic wars. As entrepreneurs, they were motivated to protect their current share of the world linen market, at least, and, at best, to increase their profits from the new opportunities. To maintain or increase their market share, they would have to keep their competitive edge. They had to protect their secure supply of home-grown flax and to maintain an adequate work force of spinners and weavers under trying conditions. An important part of their strategy after 1804 was to recruit Ulster women in Counties Down, Tyrone and Armagh to weave commercial linen. Besides a positive climate for labor substitution, commercial expansion encouraged industrial leaders to tinker with prevailing notions of work and gender--to break the link of man to the loom and woman to the spinning wheel. This paper explores the recruitment of women weavers during the Napoleonic war in order to assess its economic and social impact. What was the outcome of this innovation? Were women weavers a temporary accommodation to emergency conditions, or did they become a permanent feature of the postwar linen industry?(2) Did this industrial innovation have long-term effects on women's work, gender, and the domestic mode of production?

I argue that war conditions presented Irish entrepreneurs with a golden opportunity to snap the link between gender and commercial linen weaving; snapping that link, in turn, prepared the way for snapping the link between farming and weaving, the bi-occupations of rural Ulster households. War-time innovations in the linen industry, subsequently, turned independent farmer-weavers into rural proletarian weavers. The industrialists succeeded because their innovations did not mount a frontal attack on the tuff of Ulster' independent farmer-weaver households, namely, domestic industry and the public linen markets. Instead, they developed a complementary side of the industry to meet heightened wartime demand. As the letters of notable linen merchants and bleachers, and the reports of the Irish Linen Board will show, the innovators mounted a concerted effort to recruit women to weave linen. Withdrawal of these workers from spinning was to be offset by mechanizing flax spinning, at least the coarse grades of yarn. Weaving offered women a more remunerative alternativ occupation in wartime. Women weavers, as we will see, had ramifications for the peace as well.

While women offered industrialists an alternative labor supply of weavers, sufficient raw material had to be secured as well. …

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