How centuries old Upperlands company is using digital technology to bring luxury linen back to Earth

WATER and its fundamental link to Irish linen forms the basis of contemporary new designs for Earthed - the debut interiors collection from William Clark, one of the oldest privately owned companies in the world.

Producer of quality linen for 300 years, the south Derry company (it's based in the village of Upperlands) launched its first collection for the interiors market in October and already has secured listings with more than 100 stockists across the UK and Ireland.

The collection, inspired by the Clady River, has embraced the latest technology in digital printing to produce seven designs for two linen fabrics for use in drapes and upholstery.

Although the company has extensive experience in clothing, supplying to high-end fashion brands including Burberry and tailors on Savile Row, Earthed marks its first foray into the high-end interiors market - and it has been an exhilarating journey, according to creative director Duncan Neil.

"The fact the designs have been made especially to suit the new digital printing methods, is in itself a huge leap," he says.

"For instance, with the older screen printing methods, you needed a different screen for each colour, but there was nice absorption in the fabric.

"With digital printing, the ink just falls on top of the fabric, so it is more difficult to get the same concentration for large areas of flat colour.

"That calls for challenges in both colour ways and design, so it was a matter of going back to the drawing board, so to speak, and making the designs appropriate for the modern process.

"We now have access to 20,000 colours, so there was real opportunity to come up with something different, to focus on clean movement and tone."

With the nearby Clady river suitably reflecting the ebb and flow of world-wide demand for luxury linen, there was no better starting point for Earthed, which has also been designed with Feng Shui colour principles in mind.

"Earthed is really a celebration of water, which has sustained William Clark for three centuries, right back to the days of building dams and sluice gates and when women were central to the beetling process which involved them standing in the river and hitting the fabric against the rocks," Duncan explains.

"The names of the designs reflect those processes - from Torrent which is a cascading water print, to Revolution which is based around water wheels. We were also careful about the psychology of colour and its emotive qualities, so no-one would be left feeling cold."

There may not be women wading out in the river today - a machine now pounds the fabric with heavy wooden blocks - but William Clark remains the only business in Ireland to provide 100 per cent beetled linen to the world’s top tailors and decorators.

"There aren't that many Irish linen manufactures left, but linen, especially Irish linen, remains a much-sought after commodity," Duncan maintains.

"The business has been through some ups and downs, but following significant investment, William Clark is now going from strength to strength, employing 37 local people and continuing its long commitment to innovation.

"We are currently working on the second collection which takes geology as its theme, again inspired by our relationship with the natural world while being empowered by the possibilities of digital printing."

A graduate of Printed Textiles at Dundee University, Duncan first had the idea for Earthed after seeing the difficulty experienced by smaller brands due to competition from China, then Spain and Portugal, where the technology was more advanced.

"At that point, there was a feeling that William Clark should move into reactive dye digital printing which is the most versatile of the high-end digital printing technologies and can only be used on natural fibres," he explains.

"It's also more efficient with fewer set-up costs, so it was an opportunity to expand and do something different, using photography, drawing, painting and mark making for bold printed patterns."

Earthed is yet another innovation for the company which has survived through the ages due to diversification, first moving from mass produced UK clothing to high-end linen products and furnishings and later investing in a sophisticated lamination plant - which in turn opened up new markets in medical and protective wear.

At the height of its success in 1999, the company had a workforce of 170 and a £9 million turnover, but this dipped drastically to 25 employees and £1m turnover in 2006 as a result of the UK clothing market outsourcing production to China and the Far East.

Last year, however, the company delivered a trading profit of £186,000, increasing sales by 40 per cent to just under £3m - "a significant milestone" and a catalyst for future confidence and investment.

"In the 2015-2016 trading year, shareholders invested in excess of £570,000 to improve productivity and expand into new markets with digital printing and Earthed," Duncan adds.

"Over the next three years, sales are projected to increase sales to £5 million and the work force to 57, with the aim to target new markets in America and Japan over the next 12 months.

"Production in Northern Ireland may have dwindled to craft markets, but William Clark is re-inventing Irish linen as a viable commercial product with worldwide demand," he said.