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The ingenious Irish latch-hook needle

The ingenious Irish luck chuck needleThe latch-hook needle, used by rug-makers the world over to knot yarn in carpets, was patented on this day, 1904.  The needle was invented by an ingenious Irish landlord, Robert Flower (1836-1919), the eighth Viscount Ashbrook of Durrow.

His patented latch-hook needle had a hinged latchet that kept the yarn hooked so that, with one quick movement, the yarn was drawn through the canvas foundation and knotted.

Flower’s needle simplified the process of making hand-tufted rugs and carpets, and gave rise to a small carpet factory in Abbeyleix that flourished for several years, making high-quality carpets for prestigious clients, including the Titanic.

Robert Flower was an enthusiastic inventor, though one early experiment with gunpowder left him with a permanent limp!  He also patented designs for organ pipes, water-heating stoves and soldering aluminium, but his primary interest was textiles. He invented easy-to-use hand-looms designed for unskilled-workers and people with disabilities to earn an income,  and improved automatic looms.

Deep-pile hand-tufted carpets have always attracted a premium price. They were traditionally made on large upright looms, and heavy beams supported the fabric rolls; each tuft was manually woven around the warp and knotted in place. Flower patented a new system for use with his needle, that was  simpler and faster than the traditional approach: his carpet was made on a small flat-bed loom that he designed; and the carpet’s canvas foundation was made on a separate automatic loom.

A philanthropic entrepreneur from nearby Abbeyleix, Ivo de Vesci, was keen to provide local employment, and in 1904 he opened a carpet factory in Abbeyleix using Flower’s system. Similar ventures were being established around the country to create work for local women in a bid to slow emigration and save rural communities.

The Abbeyleix factory commissioned designs from well known artists, and earned an international reputation and numerous awards. At its peak 24 women worked there, and a team could produce a carpet 12-feet by 15-feet in three months, with yarn tied at 20 knots to the square inch. Their carpets graced Ascot’s grandstand and Dublin’s Mansion House, and were sold in Harrods of London and Marshall Fields of Chicago.

The venture was not a commercial success, however, and in 1909 it merged with Naas carpet factory (begun by the Mercy Sisters in 1902), to form Kildare Carpets. The Abbeyleix site was extended and production changed from Flower’s workbenches to large upright beam looms. The Abbeyleix workers now supplied the company’s most notable order – carpets for rms Olympic and Titanic, orders won through de Vesci’s friend and White Star Line chairman, Lord Perrie.

But the merger with Naas had never been happy, and industrial problems in England disrupted the crucial yarn supplies. In December 1912 the Abbeyleix factory closed, and Naas followed a few years later. Robert Flower’s innovative needle, however, is still used the world over.

Visit: Abbeyleix heritage museum, and see the recreated carpet factory with looms, latch-hook needles and original carpets, and an exhibition about the Titanic connection.


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