Linen in Flanders, a tradition of excellence

For centuries, flax has been grown and transformed into linen fabrics throughout Flanders, the westernmost region of Belgium, known since the Renaissance for its prosperity and culture. The climate and soil of the region, interlaced with many small rivers, have made it ideal for linen production. In the beginning, flax was an ancillary crop, grown to be woven during the long winter months while farmers waited for the next growing cycle to begin.

In 1275, the town of Tielt erected an exchange for linen trade. This market flourished as a source of supply to weavers in the region. By the 1300's, the Mandel river was vital for retting harvested flax to remove the binders and release the fibers. Over the next century, the craft of linen manufacture spread throughout Flanders, especially to the Lys region where, by the 1600's, Meulebeke was an important source for finer qualities of linen cloth. A census conducted in 1739 recorded 342 master weavers, 167 laborers and 28 apprentices engaged in linen production in Meulebeke. The industry brought increased prosperity to the region, although the lives of the local craftsmen were not easy.

Throughout the 18th century, up until the middle of the 1800's, Flanders' textile industry prospered. By 1796, for the districts around Tielt, 17% of households were involved in linen production; by 1840, this figure had risen to 71%. Tielt remained the center of the industry, more important than either Gent or Kortrijk.

By the 1850's, however, there was a reversal of fortune for the linen industry, brought on by several factors. The cotton weaving industry became increasingly mechanized and expanded rapidly. Trade barriers in the form of import duties were increasingly being imposed. This, and other developments, caused decline in exports to Spain and her South American colonies, which had been important markets. Finally, the industrial revolution in England was in full swing, and Flanders' artisans, still weaving on hand looms, found themselves in competition with large, mechanized mills.

With nearly 65% of its workforce engaged in linen production, Meulebeke was extremely hard hit. With its long-standing cottage-industry structure of hand-woven production, Flanders was slow to modernize. By attempting to keep the industry operating among individuals, it rapidly fell behind its French and English competitors.

But, by around 1846, several mechanical spinners had established themselves in the Roulers region and mechanization spread from there. Lagae Linens was founded in 1858 and Libeco six years later. The first mechanized weaving mills in Meulebeke were opening around 1904.

Enduring the hardship of two World Wars, the strength of the linen industry of Flanders has waxed and waned in the 20th century. Today, with the merger of Libeco·Lagae, the outlook for Belgian linen production is brighter than ever in its venerable history.

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