Shirt tradition flying high in Derry

More than 300 shirts are currently hanging on washing lines above William Street as part of artist Rita Duffy’s work marking Derry’s City of Culture celebrations and its shirt industry tradition.

The artist said Derry’s role in shirt making was an “irresistible subject.”

HANG OUT THE WASHING!. . . .The scene at William Street this week as clothes lines of shirts adorned the skyline above. DER4113JM040

HANG OUT THE WASHING!. . . .The scene at William Street this week as clothes lines of shirts adorned the skyline above. DER4113JM040

“The shirt-making industry played such a pivotal part in the lives of so many women in the city that it was an irresistible subject for me to tackle,” she said.

“We’ve put together what I believe is a very thought-provoking collection of ideas and installations which will celebrate the immense contribution the women of the shirt factories made to the city. To have so many shirts hanging on washing lines in the city centre is a simple but effective reminder of just how important this industry was to this city.”

The eye-catching installation in the city centre is a vivid reminder to the people of the city of the time when it was regarded as the shirt-making capital of the world.

At its height more than 40 firms in Derry were making shirts and collars - employing in the region of 8,000 women and girls and thousands more out-workers in the surrounding districts.

The factories played a hugely significant role in the economic life of the city and with the area suffering from high unemployment, for many families the women workers employed there, were often the sole wage earners.

The history of shirt making in the city dates back to 1831 when William Scott and his family first began exporting shirts to Glasgow.

So great was the demand for Derry-made shirts that the number of factories in the city increased from five, in the 1850s, to 38 by 1903, with 113 rural branches, paying £300,000 per annum in wages.

In 1830, no shirts were made in Derry for commercial purpose - yet 70 years later Derry was a world leader in shirt manufacturing.

By 1926, the city had 44 shirt factories employing some 8,000 of its 45,000 population.

However, by the beginning of the 20th century, Derry’s position as the world centre of shirt-making was being slowly but steadily eroded.

Production and employment levels were maintained but the industry was no longer as profitable as it once was.

The first half of the century saw the Derry shirt industry badly hit by the depression of the 1930s but hugely boosted by the two world wars. The years of the Second World War, in particular, are recalled as a thriving time for the city.

Factories including the Star Factory, Tillie and Henderson’s, Hamilton’s and G Scott and Co (The City Factory) were familiar landmarks on the city’s landscape.

The City Factory in Patrick Street has been renovated for the City of Culture year and is being used as a venue for a variety of events, including the Shirt Factory Project.