linen - the story of Mladek and Sochor in Northern Ireland

Paul Zdenek Sochor and Milan Mladek were talking to Jonathan Hamill of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Cultra in 2001. Copyright of original transcripts is with National Museums and Galleries of Northern Ireland Ulster Folk and Transport Museum supported by national heritage memorial fund, Ulster Green Villages Ltd, Esme Mittchell Trust, Eskalen Foundation, Lisburn Borough Council, Miss Elizabeth Ellison Charitable Trust.

I was allowed to take notes of the transcripts and would like to thank Mr Peter Carson and Mr Dixon from the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum Library. Special thanks goes also to Mr Jason Diamond at Ulster Ancestry in Belfast, Mr Ivor McKeown for assistance and anyone else involved.

What about Linen from Ireland? In the words of Milan Mladek: So we went into the next best thing and some people say we were lucky because linen is very difficult.

Paul Zdenek Sochor was born in Trutnov in 1933 and this is his story:

The Joseph Sochor textile print factory employed 2000 people and they were the first users outside the UK of the Tootal anti crease, they were the first company to use Flash age vats produced by Badische Anilin (=BASF) in Ludwigshafen, Sochor had developed the process with BASF . and their overseas chemists came as far as India. Sochor designed machinery and many of his patents date from before 1939, he was so much at the vanguard of textile engineering, that his son Paul Zdenek Sochor says: “Once I was visiting France looking for some equipment .. and the director of the company came to me and asked if I was a son of Mr Sochor and I said Yes, and he said “Well we have been using your father’s patent for a great number of years”. After the Sudeteland (roughly the Sumava Bohemian Mountain Range) was allocated to NS-Germany in 1938 at the Treaty of Munich, the Joseph Sochor Company was taken over by Germans, who replaced the machinery to make an aircraft factory. Joseph Sochor had been sent to England to look at possibilities of starting a company there, when the war started and he stayed there. After the war and the defeat of the NS, Sudetenland and the rest of Czechoslovakia regained independence and became an entity again. The textile machinery was brought back to the Sochor Factory, however Joseph Sochor did not get his property back because by 1948, the company was nationalised because the communist regime of Stalinist inspiration had taken over national affairs.

Joseph Sochor was lent some money by the Ministry of Commerce in Belfast and started a textile print company called Belfast Silk and Rayon in Waterford Street which used to be a dilapidated flax spinning mill near the Royal Victoria Hospital in West Belfast. There was a small community of 30 or so Czech people in the area. The company had 140 employees, mostly males and 99% were Catholic. Then he decided that it would be a good idea to weave the material for dress printing also - in the language of economics this is known as a “vertical operation”. He bought the premises on the Comber Road in Newtownards from Miles Master, which used to make aircrafts. Sochor declined the offer of buying one or two aircrafts. He worked together with Milan Mladek, who patented a new way of weaving crepes and his father Josef Edward Mladek. More about Mladek in a short while. At the end of the 1950ies, Joseph Sochor sold Crepe Weavers to Mladek.

Paul Zdenek Sochor describes the printing process as follows: “Initially a frame was covered by silk and on that silk was photographed the pattern (…) the majority of people brought their own design and we had to adapt them on cloth. First of all you would have to repeat a drawing so that the pattern would repeat all the way down the 50 metres which were stuck on a table. This was a very skilled operation and then manually the designers had to take out each colour in turn. If perhaps the pattern had five colours, they would make each colour out and put it unto a film and that film would then be used for photographing the patterns on to the screen. (enduring designs: ) One design was given to us by an English company called Silmyra, it was of a Japanese type design having bamboo canes and various other things on it. Floral designs on tea towels are popular even to this day.)
“All the prints were fixed in an oven. Because the pigments were so good we were able to attain very high standards. In fact, we printed for several years in polycotton the tablecloths and napkins for Marks and Spencers who were huge customers, not directly, but through another Northern Ireland company, Ewart-Liddel.”

Most bleaching they did was peroxide bleaching. The interviewer asks following question: “Did any of the resin finishes you were applying give off fumes?”
Sochor replies “Yes they did” They had extractor fans but “they were pretty hazardous in the early days”.

"Silk and Rayon" was taken over by Carrington and Dewhurst who employed Paul Zdenek Sochor for five years and then they closed it. The building does not exist any more, there is a housing estate instead. Sochor bought premises in Whitehouse but moved soon to Dunmurry. Dunmurry Prints still exists but it was taken over in 1984, Paul Zdenek Sochor was employed three years as a salesperson and was made redundant. He then started a business.

Derek Bailie from Ulster Dunmurry Prints has said that the Czech companies were not of a suitable standard. Was that correct in your view?
- No, I think it was totally incorrect. I found when I went to see them that some of the quality they were making was far better that what I have seen here and I think they have made a grave mistake.
- Is there still a hankering after Irish linen as opposed to linen from other countries in the world?
Yes I think there is, and I think there always will be. There will be an area for Irish linen and it has to be well marketed. It has to be well-presented, it has to be of a high quality, and I also believe there is room for linen which is produced in other countries which is probably as good in quality but more competition in price.”
Milan Mladek was born in Tuttenhauf (?) in 1930 and here is his story:

By the 1930ies the Mladek family had been three generations in textiles. In 1906, when Fejfar and Mladek started around Tuttenhauf with linen and household textiles (including cotton) , the linen industry was very much a cottage enterprise. “Hand-weavers were alarmed and positioned to machine-weaving but soon they got everybody behind them”. Mladek who had left school at the age of 15 and learnt German by himself when he moved to Tuttenhauf, expanded the company to a size big enough to supply the whole Austrian Empire. After its demise and the independence of Czechoslovakia, they found new markets in Europe and USA. Josef Edward Mladek was put in charge of the spinning mill. Tuttenhauf was the centre of Czechoslovak linen because it provided the raw material for flax spinning, the water provided power and dampness.

Mladek had to flee Tuttenhauf/Sudetenland because he did not want to become a German citizen and he was opposed to NS-ideology. He went to the inner part of Czechoslovakia . “Father managed another weaving factory whose owner was taken into a concentration camp because of his political activities against the Germans. Father was a friend of his so he kept it going until they managed to get him out of the Munich Dachau concentration camp.”.

After the war, Mladek wanted his Tuttenhauf factory back but this did not happen as eventually the communist regime took over and put it off. Josef Edward Mladek sent Milan’s older brother Zdenek to Belfast to learn textile in the English language, himself he was sent to prison by the communist regime.

He got over the border in 1949 via Germany, the Netherlands and they headed to Belfast because of the son studying there and also because they were acquainted to Sochor. They did not get a visa for Great Britain, though, after appeal the Ministry of Commerce in Belfast arranged for a visa in 1951 on the condition that they would move to Northern Ireland.

For the family this meant adapting into a new language. “We could pick up a bit from books but when we came here we had just the basic knowledge. For me, I managed to get into Queen’s University with my grammar school certificate from Belgium and so I learnt English as I went along at university. But for my parents, my mother who was at home, fortunately she picked up English from television when television came in for the Queen’s Coronation. My mother when she finished her work, and sit and she might be knitting something and watching and listening to television and it took three years before she… but she picked it up very well. She had the ear for it. My father had to learn the hard way. My mother learnt it from listening, mainly to television and of course then she made friends and she liked people and that helped.”.

- Mr Mladek. You said you studied part-time at Belfast Tech. Was that the weaving course?
- No it was textile technology and led by Professor Dorman and Mr Greenville.”

He explained that this was a three years’ course which he took between 1953 and 1956. Second year evening course. Third year was supposed to be full-time but the textile department allowed him to work full-time at the factory and study during the evening and Saturdays at the tech.

“The course didn’t include crepe weaving, I did Jacquard damask weaving and got a first prize from the textile institute. I had the knowledge from my previous… from the Czechs because as a small boy in the weaving I helped filling shuttles there and watched the looms and so I had a fair understanding in what is required for the design of damask tablecloth…. You can make crepe by weaving a special pattern but we did use a bit of linen yarn across when we went into synthetics from rayon. At Crepe Weavers Limited in Newtownards we wove polyester crepe and also with polyester warp with a mixture of linen and polyester and terylene sort of linen crepe with polyester in it too because as you know linen is known for creasing. Putting polyester into it helped it to recover and made it easy care. So yes, we wove linen into polyester type of crepe.”

Crepe Weavers Limited had 70 employees who were mostly female and paid six pounds for a weaver and eight pounds for a tenter. There were three directors, Josef Edward Mladek, Joseph Sochor and Mr Laslett.

“Mr Laslett was still director but then he decided to leave because my father was a hard man to... He wanted everything to be done properly.”

He describes the work conditions as good apart from the noise, the temperature was 20 deg C, humid but the work was not too difficult for the weavers. Milan Mladek himself was supervising the work but was not given any managerial position.

“We were weaving very light fabrics from the lightest possible yarn so that we wouldn’t use too much yarn. That yarn was used and turned into voile and it was used for embroidery and it was sold to people like Ulster Laces in Portadown for Ladies Underwear for trimming.
In 1956-57 we were able to buy some more second-hand looms from Lancashire (from Calico who were throwing them out) and we bought them for about twenty pounds each. – 64 looms – and I, with a small modification committed them to weave nylon. They really put us on a basic nylon taffeta, 2oz per square yard which is light for anoraks and it was for things like ladies’ underwear for people like Daintyfit of Cookstown and all the straps for ladies and that really put us on our feet.

So I would say we are not into linen because we were not allowed to because they said they had too much of it. So we went into the next best thing and some people say we were lucky because linen is very difficult.

Crepe Weavers Ltd
Crepe Weavers Ltd
20 Comber Rd
BT23 4RX (MAP)
Telephone 028 9181 2424
Fax 028 9181 8844

Newtownards Northern Ireland