LONDON -- Irish linen producers predict this will be a boom year.
Demand is being fueled by fashion trends and the growing use of blends, which brings prices down below all-linen goods, said Linda McHugh, marketing executive at the Irish Linen Guild.
"As a result, such U.S. stores as The Gap and Banana Republic and Marks & Spencer and Next in the U.K. have implemented linen programs," said McHugh. Marks & Spencer this spring plans its second linen program, and will feature apparel in blends of linen and cotton and linen and viscose.
"Once it gets down to the Marks & Spencer level, it means linen is firmly established in the U.K. market," she said. "Linen also is becoming more of a year-round fabric, either blended with wool or produced in a heavier weight.
"Sacking [loose-woven, washed] linen is in vogue anyway among designers, as is the layered look," McHugh said. "Some designers have quilted it for winter and even used a waterproof, waxed linen for outerwear."
Last fall, British designer Ally Capellino used heavy linen for her collection and overprinted it, McHugh said. Capellino's use of linen for fall was part of her partnership with the guild to promote her name as well as the merits of Irish linen.
This involved joint advertising campaigns and a fashion and beauty workshop at Harrods. It was the guild's first designer tie-in, and McHugh said it might continue into next fall and perhaps include other designers.
Irish linen weavers such as Moygashel in Dungannon, Samuel Lamont & Sons in Ballymena and John England Textiles in Belfast, all agreed the greater demand for blended linen has enabled them to move away from strictly seasonal sales.
"I would say the demand for our linen is much more consistent [through the year]," said Brian Copeland, senior sales manager, Moygashel. D.N. Lamont, president of Samuel Lamont, said despite the lower prices with blends, the higher end use of linen fabrics "will not suffer at all."
"The interesting thing about linen is that it's the type of fiber associated with high-end fabrics," he said, noting Lamont's export business throughout Europe has increased about 15 percent this year."Just because some of the more moderate people may be using it in blended form, it doesn't mean the market for 100 percent linen is going to leave," Lamont said. "Along with silk, it's still considered a premier fiber throughout Europe."
On the promotional front, McHugh said, "Manufacturers now realize it is important to brand both the garment and the fabric. We now are getting queries from apparel producers about putting the Irish Linen Guild logo on their labels."
The guild, which was established in 1928 to promote Irish linen, already uses the Masters of Linen symbol on all the fabrics its 30 members produce. The symbol has become the centerpiece of the guild's promotions and advertising, similar to the Woolmark used by the International Wool Secretariat.
The guild's problem is that it has limited resources to invest in industry and consumer promotions. That is one reason the guild has not yet advertised linen as a winter fabric, although McHugh said it might do so next fall. The guild is part of Europe's International Linen and Hemp Confederation, which promotes the fabric throughout Europe under its Paris-based International Linen Promotion arm.
Ireland's linen industry has annual sales of about $177 million (120 million pounds) and has invested about $74 million (50 million pounds) in technology over the last five years.
It is Europe's second-largest producer of linen yarns and fabrics after Italy, McHugh said.
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