A Brief History of Linen
With a long history and a unique production method, linen has stood the test of time in trade, textiles and crafts and remains as dominant as ever today. Learn more in our interesting article below
The spinning and weaving of linen is depicted on wall paintings of ancient Egypt. As early as 3,000 B.C., the fibre was processed into fine white fabric (540 threads to the inch – finer than anything woven today) and wrapped around the mummies of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Mentioned several times in the Bible, linen has been used as a cool, comfortable fibre in the Middle East for centuries as well. Ancient Greeks and Romans greatly valued it as a commodity. Finnish traders are believed to have introduced flax to Northern Europe where it has been under cultivation for centuries.
Both wool and linen were tremendously important in European history as before the industrial revolution much sturdy, homemade clothing was woven from linen cultivated, processed, spun, dyed, woven and sewn by hand. It may be argued that until the 18th century, linen was the most important textile in the world. But in the late 18th century, cotton became the fibre that was most easily and inexpensively processed and woven in the mechanised British textile mills.
Linen fabric is made from the cellulose fibre that grows inside the stalks of the flax plant, or Linum usitatissimum, one of the oldest cultivated plants in human history. It grows to about three or four feet tall, with glossy bluish-green leaves and pale blue flowers, though on rare occasions the flowers bloom red. Due to the plant’s short lifespan, each flax flower blooms only once.
The process begins with sowing in March and harvesting in July. The flax plant grows to its full height after three months. The taller the flax plant, the longer the fibre and the plants are pulled from the ground rather than cut to get the most out of the length. Following the Irish method, the cut flax is steeped in water (retting) for several days to soften it, then laid out to dry. In Europe it is laid flat and exposed to the elements for two weeks. When ready, it is bundled and prepared for transferring to the mill. Special machinery combs and separates the fibres then the spinning process creates the long, strong and smooth bobbins of thread. These are separated into weft and warp bobbins and then woven together on looms, with any imperfections that occur being corrected by hand. Some linen is sold in the ‘loom state’ (unfinished) but most are washed, bleached, dyed or given fire or water-repellent coatings
Though over the last few hundred years we’ve developed machines that complete the tasks of harvesting, retting and dressing flax, these processes damage the delicate fibres such that finest linen is still manufactured almost entirely by hand. Because the process is still so laborious, even mechanised flax production requires a great deal more handwork than other mass industrially produced textiles such as cotton and rayon.
The best-quality linen is retted in slow-moving natural water sources such as streams and rivers. In fact, the highest-quality linen in the world is retted in Belgium in the River Lys, though to this day chemists have been unable to determine what makes the water so conducive to the retting process. Harvested flax is sent to Belgium from France, Holland and even as far away as South America to be retted in the magical waters of the River Lys, which is typically crowded for miles with weighted-down flax bundles.
Irish linen is the best known and most valuable, though most of the flax used for manufacturing is grown elsewhere and imported into the country for processing. The climate in Ireland is quite favorable for flax processing, and the slow Irish bleaching methods inflict minimal damage on the fibres. European linen is the next finest, with the French producing the whitest and most delicate of textiles. Scotch linen is generally considered of medium quality, while German linen quality ranges from good to poor.
More recently a different variety of flax plant has been raised not for its linen fibres but for its seeds. The linseed variety is grown primarily to extract the seed’s highly nutritious oil. We’ll keep favouring the other variety that keeps our sewing rooms well stocked in beautiful fabric.
Find out more
The linen trousers shown above appear in issue 52 available here with downloadable templates from our site www.lovesewingmag.co.uk/product/green-with-envy-trousers
Butterick 6025 features a top, tunic and dress that would be perfect in printed or plain linen. Available in sizes 8-16 and 16-24 for £8.95 from www.sewdirect.com
The Milenda Dress by Tessuti PDF pattern is shown above. Available priced AUD $12 (approximately £6.59)
Merchant & Mills stocks a large selection of laundered linen in multiple colourways. See them at www.merchantandmills.com
Learn about the I Love Linen campaign taking place from 15th April at www.ilovelinen.uk
Visit these websites to find out more about the long and rich history of linen