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A Short History of Linen – Part 1

Sennedjem"’s tomb, Ancient Egypt

A short history of linen

Working with natural fibers has always been one of my greatest interests. The most obvious were wool and cotton, in all the forms they were made available. One day I found silk. Oh – the joy of silk. How it looks and feels, then the wonder of working with such strong yet delicate threads. It soon became very important to me to find the fibers that have been used since the beginning of our history. I didn’t know a lot about linen, other than that it was usually comfortable and creased a lot on wearing. Irish linen sheets lasted several lifetimes and that it was more expensive than I could usually afford. Then I was given an opportunity to work with some first class pure linen and I was sold. I was lost in dreams of the perfect fiber and all that it could create. Over the past 25 years I have never lost my love of linen and all it offers.

Linen is one of the earliest products known to civilization. When man was in his earliest primitive state, living on the wide animals he hunted, the skins of those animals formed his only clothing. Later, when nomadic communities formed, driving herds of cattle and sheep across the lands of Eastern Europe during those great migrations, the wool from those flocks of sheep was used to clothe their owners.

After a long period of history, man settled down, built himself permanent cities, and cultivated the land. One of the products of the soil was flax, and out of the fiber from flax, linen was made. Linen is, therefore, the earliest known vegetable fabric to be woven.

The Antiquity of Linen.

An archeological dig carried out at the site of Neolithic lake dwellings in Switzerland turned up charred remains of food prepared from flax seed, and remnants of linen threads, ropes, clothe and fishing nets. So, man had already been growing flax as far back as Neolithic times. Traces of flax cultivation relating to the Bronze Age were found in archeological excavations in Spain.However, most of the finds of early flax cultivation relate to the Iron Age. They show that perennial narrow-leafed flax was cultivated all across Europe as far as Scandinavia.

Archeological excavations at the site of Iron Age settlements in Germany discovered remains of bread prepared from wheat, millet and flax seeds. Many archeological finds, literary records and linguistic studies also point to India, Turkmenistan, Asia Minor, Transcaucasia, Abyssinia,Algeria, and Tunisia as ancient flax cultivation areas.

Domestication of fiber flax to say nothing of seed flax occurred in India and China before that of cotton – more than 5,000 years ago. Some scholars believe that flax originally came from western Persia and spread over to other countries regarded to be the regions of early flax cultivation – India, China and Central Asia and westwards and southwestwards, primarily, to Babylon and Egypt.

Linen was heavily used in the Mediterranean in the pre-Christian age. Linen was sometimes used as currency in ancient Egypt. Egyptian mummies were wrapped in linen because it was seen as a symbol of light and purity, and as a display of wealth. Some of these fabrics, woven from hand spun yarns, were extremely fine and the fineness of the yarns in them cannot be produced even today on spinning machines.

Flax, from which linen is made, is one of the oldest agricultural plants in the world. Over 5000 years ago the Egyptians named it “woven moonlight”, due to its very singular beauty. A little less poetic, but all the more apt, is the Latin appellation: “linum usitatissimum” – the extremely useful flax plant.

When the tomb of the Pharaoh of the Exodus, Rameses ll, who died 1258 BC, about 3000 years ago, was discovered in 1881, the pure linen wrappings were in a state of perfect preservation.

The mummy of “Kaboolie”, a daughter of a priest of Ammon, who died 2500 years ago, is preserved in the library of Belfast, Ireland. The linen on this mummy is also in a state of perfection. Present research in Egypt has resulted in many wonderful discoveries, and it is a matter of historical accuracy that when the tomb of Tutankamen was opened, the linen curtains were found intact but all the other fabrics had crumbled to dust.

A linen mummy shroud

Sennedjem"’s tomb, Ancient Egypt
Sennedjem”’s tomb, Ancient Egypt

 

In the British Museum, London, are pieces of mummy linen at least 6000 years old. During recent examination, cuttings from these linens were microscopically examined and photographed (as shown) at the Linen Industry Research Institute, Belfast, Ireland, and were found to be as structurally perfect as linen made today.