Although humans have been using linen for thousands of years, you probably don’t know much about this soft and luxurious fabric beyond the fact that your grandmother probably didn’t want you touching her fine collection of linens. But what is linen? How is it made? Where did it come from? Soon, you will know the answers to these questions and more.
First, the basics: linen is the oldest manmade textile in the world and dates back thousands of years. Produced from the fibers of the flax plant, linen is durable and absorbent, providing relief in warmer climates due to its breathable nature. For this reason, it is ideal for making clothes, bed sheets, pillowcases, towels, tablecloths, napkins, and a variety of other items you may use on a daily basis.
The word linen is derived from linon, the Greek name for the flax plant, as well as the later Latin term linum. You may be interested to know that, as a result, several other common English words have their origins from these terms, such as the word line, which came from the practice of using a linen thread made of flax to measure a straight line. Other similar words include:
Your grandmother may have warned you to be careful with her fine linens, but they might not have even been made of linen at all. The word can be used to denote textiles made of non-flax fibers such as cotton or hemp created in a linen weave texture, as well as fabrics that have their own particular names, like fine cotton yarn in a linen-style weave, known as Madapolam. As a collective term, “linens” may apply to certain woven or knitted textiles traditionally fashioned from linen, including items stored in your linen closet you may use in your bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, and dining room. You can rent these items from businesses, such as The Linen Hire, to make your special events that much more special. “Linens” has also been used in the past to describe clothing and accessories that were traditionally made of linen, such as lightweight undergarments and detachable shirt collars and cuffs.
One reason that linen has been historically limited to the domain of the wealthy is because of the labour intensive process involved in manufacturing it. The flax plant is not difficult to grow, but you would have much better luck in cool and humid conditions with moist, well-plowed soil. To begin with, the woody stem and the inner pith that hold the fibers together must be rotted away. You can then retrieve the long fibers from just behind the bark of the plant in its multi-layered stem and spin it to produce linen thread, cordage, and twine. From there, you may weave fine fabrics from the thread or yarn.
The fiber preparation is better done by hand rather than mechanized processing because the flax fibers inside the woody stalk are quite fragile. If you want to produce linen, you’ll need plenty of cheap labour. Currently, a number of countries cultivate flax for the purposes of creating linen, including Austria, Belgium, the British Isles, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, and Switzerland.
The oldest known evidence of manmade textiles was discovered in a cave in the Eastern European country of Georgia, where dyed flax fibers were found preserved in pollen chambers dating back over 30,000 years! Skipping ahead to a mere 9000 years ago, an ancient site in Turkey revealed that our ancestors wrapped simply-woven linen cloth around the handles of tools to provide a stronger grip. The first instance of flax domestication and linen production occurred in ancient Mesopotamia, although it was used mainly by the society’s upper class, including priests.
An old Sumerian love poem even begins with an explanation of how to turn flax into linen. Ancient Egyptians used linen as currency and wore clothing made of white linen to protect themselves from the extreme heat. Most famously, they used linen in the mummification process, as well as for burial shrouds. When the tombs of the Pharaohs were unearthed in more modern times, the wrappings and curtains made of linen remained perfectly preserved even after thousands of years. So, although you won’t be around in a thousand years, your grandmother’s linens might be.