Flax, a slender blue-flowered plant cultivated for its strong woody fibre was used for making linen. Evidence from early Egyptian tombs suggests that flax was the first textile spun by man. The growing of flax and the making of linen was probably introduced to England by the Romans.
By the Middle Ages restrictions were placed on flax growing in order to help the woollen industry. However, people in Ireland were encouraged to produce flax and by the 18th century, the country became the largest producer of linen in the world.
In the 1790s John Marshall and Matthew Murray created an efficient lax-spinning machine that produced good quality yarn. Marshall built two mills in Leeds, installed Boulton & Watt steam-engines, between 1803 and 1815 both Temple Mill (£238,000) and Castle Foregate (£82,000) made healthy profits. By 1820 Marshall was worth over £400,000.
Linen was also used as the warp thread in the production of fustian cloth. The invention of the water-frame made it possible to make cotton cloth with cotton warp and linen was then no longer needed for this. Linen was still used for sails, sacking and furnishing.
My attention was accidentally turned to spinning of flax by machinery, it being a thing much wished for by the linen manufacturers. The immense profits which had been made by cotton spinning had attracted general attention to mechanical improvements and it might be hoped that flax spinning, if practicable, would be equally advantageous. It would be a new business, where there would be few competitors, and was much wanted for the linen manufacture of this country.
To a person wishing to be conversant in flax spinning the investigation of Marshall's works could not fail to be useful and interesting. These works are the most extensive and the best regulated of the kind in Britain, and their eminence has been entirely brought forward by the exertions of a single person: John Marshall who has entirely raised himself from a humble individual to possess an income of not less than a hundred thousand pounds per annum.