Derry shirts, the finish the fame, the fortune

Kathleen Curtis Wilson.
Kathleen Curtis Wilson.

The Shirt Factory Project, part of the UK City of Culture celebrations, continues its schedule of fascinating textile related public talks next Monday, August 12th and Thursday, August 15th with the arrival of a special visitor all the way from west coast of America. Kathleen Curtis Wilson is a regular traveller to Northern Ireland as a Visiting Scholar and Honorary Fellow of the University of Ulster.

In her first lecture she will discuss how new objects of desire constantly emerge as indicators of wealth and power; it might be an expensive sports car, a designer handbag, or the newest IPhone. Entrepreneurs in every country in the world are constantly looking for that one special item that customers will aspire to own. The city of Derry managed to produce a shirt that was such a symbol: made of the most-desired white linen (with a cotton body), these high-quality shirts were coveted by discriminating buyers around the world for decade after decade after decade, a feat not easily attained.

In the space of fifty years, the shirt industry in county Derry grew from virtual non-existence to become the largest centre of the shirt industry in Great Britain and a major exporter across the world. The demand for the Derry produced shirt—usually embroidered with decorative stitching on the front, collar, and cuffs - was so great that in 1860, the town had fourteen shirt factories shipping an estimated 100,000 shirts each week from the city docks. The shirt industry provided income for an additional fifteen thousand women outworkers who embroidered and assembled the shirts. Women constituted the vast majority of the workforce, both in factories and as pieceworkers.

Monday’s talk takes place at 7pm in The Shirt Factory Project Gallery, Patrick St/North Edward St, Derry (opposite Tinney’s Bar)

Kathleen’s second illustrated lecture on Thursday 15 August will make a connection between ‘Textiles in Ulster and Appalachia’.