'Silk and Belfast Linen' is a mini-sequence of two poems set in Belfast, the home of the linen industry and mainly employing women; but there were other women there, who were busy as well.

Silk and Belfast Linen


First, a slow and ravelled bandaging
of wire, the soldered junctions awkward,
the frame a snare for their wrists,
and that flat card of cross-cut binding
a footling shuttle as they lay the tape’s
raw edge round ferrous metal
that would else, in this sporey climate, oxidise.

And then they take their trousseaux
all to bits – all their night things
snip-snipped to a panel pattern:
the camisoles and wedding negligees
of silk and silk-satin and silk-mousseline.
They cut away chafed seams, stained underarms,
faint foxing of blood below.

Oh, there are stretches that are good
as new, blush pink and peachy!
These they seam into a sleeve of silk
and raise a taut pavilion.
silk’s in eclipse until its lamp is lit.


In the linen mills I was a weaver of linen.
(That was before I married Billy Morrow.)
My own loom, uh huh, my own web.
Them was great times. Forty of us girls
pedalling Belfast linen on forty looms.

But yer man – Robinson, was it? – would saunter along
the aisle of the looms. Didn’t he have the quick eye
for a slub in the damask, even a thickened thread.
He ‘d soft hands. The other checkers ‘d point
so as you could mend it. Robinson? Oh no.

His wee white nail ‘d
pick and pick and pick
till that slub was a hole in the web
and the pink prick of his finger
poked right through.

‘Yon’s a fault!’ Robinson dandered his shears
handy like, at his belt. In four snips
he’d cut the warp in two. ‘That’ll larn ye.’

Mebbe a day’s piece gone. Mebbe a week’s.
Whatever it was, it was a ruin of linen.
Priceless. The girl wageless. And in debt for the yarn.

from The Fat-Hen Field Hospital: Poems 1885-1992 (Loxwood Stoneleigh, 1993), © Catherine Byron 1993, used by permission of the author

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