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A short History of linen – Part 2

Sennedjem"’s tomb, Ancient Egypt

A short history of linen – part 2

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.

Egyption linen and modern linen
Samples of original Egyptian linen 1st dynasty and modern example.

 

Flax has been used in the Middle East since the fifth millennium BCE. In Egypt its role was probably more important than in many other cultures, as Egyptians rarely used wool and cotton was unknown during much of their ancient history. It was seen as a gift of the Nile, as the Hymnto Hapi has it: People are clothed with the flax of his fields.

Through time linen has persisted. Its history is also closely interwoven with the Bible stories.Linen has always been held in reference as an emblem of purity, and it is mentioned frequently in the Old Testament.

The tribes of Israel used as their central point of worship, the Tabernacle. We are told that the curtains in the Tabernacle were made of fine linen, and when the high priest, Aaron, entered that holy place, he put on a holy linen coat & girdle and upon his head was a linen Mitre. In the history of ancient times, linen holds a truly unique place. This is also confirmed in the New Testament, which states that the seven angels who held in their hands the winds of destruction, were clothed in pure and white linen. Again from the Book of Revelations we are informed that the garments of those chosen to rule as kings and priests in heaven over the earth will be of fine linen.

One hundred years after the birth of Christ, Plutarch wrote that the priests of Isis wore linen because of its purity. It was not just a precious fabric of the Israelites. It symbolized cleanliness.

In ancient times, in almost every country, those who stayed on the land grew flax and wove the linen for its own use, but the earliest records of an established linen industry are about 4000 years old, and come to us from Egypt.

The Phoenicians, with their merchant fleets, opened many channels of commerce and trade to the peoples of the Mediterranean. It was the Phoenicians who introduced flax growing and the naking of linen into Ireland before the birth of Christ, but it was not until the twelfth century that we can find records of proper attempts to systematize flax production in Ireland.

Gauls and Celts, the earliest flax growers in Western Europe, learned about flax from Romans while Slavs, who were the first to start cultivating flax in eastern Europe, brought it from Greece. In the regions of early flax cultivation in Central Asia (Afghanistan, mountainous areas of Bukhara, and Turkmenistan) flax cultivation has remained primitive until the turn of the 20thcentury.

Flax has been known in Russia since 2000 B.C. Ancient manuscripts of the 9th-10th century B.C. contain evidence of linen made by Slavs. Oriental writers of the time described Slavs attired in linen clothes. Prior to the formation of Kievan Rus, all Slavic tribes that inhabited the eastern European plain raised flax. Flax was used to make sailcloth, fishing nets, ropes and linseed oil. In the 10th-11th centuries A.D. flax was extensively grown for fiber and seed. It was regarded to be an important crop both for crafts and commerce. Peasants used it to pay feudal dues and make payments to the czar’s treasury. Russian princes collected tribute in linen. Because of the amazing versatility of the plant – perhaps only to be compared with the role that bamboo plays in the Asian culture – people have always held it in high esteem.

Linen is the most ancient vegetable fabric known to man. For centuries people have been growing flax to make fiber and weave linen. But despite its venerable age flax remains to be as young as ever.