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Linen - An Ancient Textile and Popular Modern Fabric

Updated on April 26, 2020
Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

Flax growing in a field
Flax growing in a field | Source
  • Linen is made from the flax plant
  • Evidence of human use for over 3,000 years
  • Linen is mentioned in the Bible and the Egyptian Book of the Dead
  • It has been used for delicate hankerchiefs as well as armor
  • Linen keeps the body cooler than any other fabric

There is something almost magical about linen. It promotes a feeling of peace and tranquility. Its purity was beloved by the Ancient Egyptians, though the history of its use predates the pharaohs by tens of thousands of years. It is mentioned in the Bible and the New Testament.

It is used for clothing, as a surface for painting, and as a bedding material is thought to promote a most restful sleep. Some psychologists believe that linen can help prevent depression and anxiety.

Linen is a fabric made from the flax plant: Linum usitatissimum, an herbaceous plant that produces blue flowers. Though sheets and tablecloths may be referred to as "linens" they may actually be cotton or a blend of fabrics that may or may not include linen. Authentic linen products are labelled "100% linen."

Linen keeps the body cooler than cotton and has slight antiseptic and antimicrobial properties. Tests performed by Dr. V. Vadkovskaya in the mid 20th century measured skin temperatures of men wearing cotton or linen. The skin of the men wearing linen was 3 - 4 degrees cooler than the skin of men wearing cotton.

Drying flax
Drying flax | Source

From Flax to Linen

Flax grows wild from North Africa to Eastern and Central Europe, and Eastern Asia. It is one of the oldest plants in cultivation and needs 100 days from germination to maturation. The type of flax grown for fabric is not the same one that is used for the seeds that we eat. Flax grown to produce fiber has a straight stalk, while the type used for seeds usually shows more branching.

A bast fiber, linen is obtained from a part of the plant that grows between the outer surface and inner core.

In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder states, "No plant grows more easily than flax," and adds that no other plant grows more quickly. It can grow on land that is not adequate for other types of agricultural products and can grow at higher altitudes. However, flax does deplete nutrients from the soil.

It grows best in a cool damp environment, that is why the best linen is from Ireland and Belgium. In warmer areas, flax is grown during the cooler months. In Egypt, it was (and still is) planted in early Spring and harvested in early Summer.

The flax plant is harvested when it begins to brown. Pulling the plant up by its roots produces a long fiber and prevents the loss of sap. The harvested plants are dried for several weeks before threshing, which removes the seeds and seed pods. Seeds can be used for linseed oil, a component of artists' oil paints and varnishes.

Then the fibers are retted or soaked in slowly moving water like a stream or a cement tank. This removes soil and other impurities. In a simple process called dew retting, the flax is laid out in fields but the final product is of a lesser quality.

The retted flax is stored for several weeks and takes about a month to cure.

Next, the flax is scraped in a process called scutching or breaking to remove the woody bits and soften the fiber.

The flax is then heckled or combed through a bed of nails (thorns in antiquity) to split the fibers. The product can then be spun, then woven.

The fibers produced from flax come in shades of gray and brown. Heavy bleaching creates the pure white shade that we often associate with linen.

Processing Flax - Look how soft it gets!

Linen dresses in Ancient Egypt Circa 1448 - 1422 BCE
Linen dresses in Ancient Egypt Circa 1448 - 1422 BCE | Source

Linen and Flax in Antiquity

Archeological excavations in the Czech Republic unearthed clay objects that show imprints of flax fibers that are 28,000 years old. Flax fibers from the Republic of Georgia have been dated at 34,000 years old!

Ancient flax was used for cording, sails, bandages, tents, awnings, and garments.

The oldest preserved piece of linen clothing is thought to be a ceremonial hat dated from about 6500 BCE

The oldest preserved linen garment is a linen shirt from an Ancient Egyptian tomb dating to 3000 BCE. The garment features pleating in the shoulders and sleeves for ease of movement and is on display at the Petrie Museum at University College in London. (Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie concentrated his investigations on artifacts used in the daily life of Ancient Egypt.)

While linen was in use throughout the Mediterranean area and up into Central and Eastern Europe, it was the Ancient Egyptians who perfected the manufacture of fine linen. They were able to create weaves fine enough to pass through a ring, and weaves so fine that they were transparent. The finest weaves were reserved for nobility and the upper classes. The fabric was produced in workshops and was widely traded, even used as currency. Large bolts of linen were often found in the tombs of the pharaohs.

Linen is mentioned in the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Several versions of the Book of the Dead which can be loosely translated as The Book of Emerging Forth Into the Light were written for rituals to assist the deceased into the after-life. Sections of this book have been found inscribed on linen shrouds.

Evidence of woven flax appears in Priam's Troy of 1259 BCE (Turkey). In Ancient Greece flax grown in Peloponnesus was made into linen. Between the 7th to the 4th century BCE, Greek men and women wore a chiton, usually a knee length for men, ankle length for women. (The Doric chiton was made of wool whle the Ionic chiton was made of linen. Finer weaves could be draped and bloused out over a belt.

Linen chiton
Linen chiton | Source

Linen as Armor

Several archeological studies suggest that linen was used in the Mediterranean area as body armor. Called linothrax, it was made by layering linen and glue. Linothrax appears in ancient images and was mentioned by Plutarch as well as appearing in other written record.

Alexander the Great is depicted in the Alexander Mosaic of Pompeii which is a copy of another, much older artwork. Linothrax would have been a lightweight armor, much more comfortable than armor made of metal. Metal armor heats up in the hot sun while linen keeps the body cool.

Alexander the Great in linothrax, a type of armor made of linen
Alexander the Great in linothrax, a type of armor made of linen | Source
A closeup of linen
A closeup of linen | Source

Linen in The Bible and New Testament

  • When Joseph became the Prime Minister in Egypt, he was "arrayed in vestures of fine linen." And when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt centuries later, they carried with them linen drapes and bolts of linen for clothing and tents.
  • The Bible relates the processing of flax in Palestine and shows how it was dried on rooftops: "...she [Rehab] had brought [the fugitives] up to the roof of the home, and hid them with the stalks of flax, which she had laid in order upon the roof.
  • Leviticus forbids the blending of wool and linen. (Lev. 19:19)
  • In the New Testament, Jesus was wrapped in linen after being taken down from the cross. Mark 15:46 states, "And he brought fine linen and took Him down, and wrapped Him in linen, and laid Him in a sepulcher which was hewn of rock." Luke, and John also mention this use of linen as a burial shroud for Jesus.
  • Revelations states, "And the armies which were in heaven followed Him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen." (Rev. 19:14)
  • And in Rev 19:8, "It was given her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints."

Linen hanky
Linen hanky | Source

Linen In the Modern World

Early on, linen fabric was used in trade and was a measure of wealth. People of the Mediterranean area manufactured the cloth in workshops and were able to produce large bolts of linen fabric.

By the Early Middle Ages in Europe, linen became a standard fabric for undergarments and warm weather clothing. Men and women wore linen tunics in summer and in cold months, wore the tunics under woolen garments. Linen absorbs perspiration and body oils. So the tunic could be easily washed, unlike wool. People kept small plots of flax for making linen in the days when most people produced their own clothing at home.

As linen cools the body, it was a popular fabric for summer wear and was a staple of the garment industry until the mid 20th century. When synthetic fabrics took off after World War II, the popularity of linen decreased.

But the new interest in natural products brought linen back to the forefront. People realized that linen is much more comfortable and breathable than synthetics. It is durable and can be used for casual and dressy occasions.

Today, Europe is the largest producer of flax. Upscale retailers often promote their products as fine Belgian or Irish linen. While the flax is grown in Europe, it is usually exported to China for manufacture. Bed linens and garments manufactured in Europe are more expensive than those produced in China.

The Care of Linen

  • Linen purchased from a fabric retailer must be washed and tumble dried in order to shrink the fabric before using it to make a garment.
  • Clothing and bedding made of linen can be machine washed and easily line dried as it dries very quickly. However, line dried linen may need to be ironed.
  • To iron linen, first dampen the fabric or use a steam or spray iron set on a hot temperature. Ironing inside out removes creases. Ironing on the right side brings out a sheen in the fabric.
  • Linen becomes softer after use. As the garment ages and softens, it may no longer require ironing. Some people like the slightly rumpled look of unironed linen.
  • Be careful when storing old linen textiles. Storing older fabric with the folds and creases always in the same place can stress and damage the material. It is best to keep old linen rolled and wrapped in acid free tissue.

Linen dress circa 1815 - 1820
Linen dress circa 1815 - 1820 | Source

Linen for Less

Below is a linen pillow case I made by recycling an ankle length linen skirt found at a thrift store. While linen pillow cases can easily cost $40.00 a piece, I have a linen pillow case that cost $5.50 and about one half an hour of work.

Linen pillow case
Linen pillow case | Source


Clothes and Cloth - America's Apparel Business by Pauline Arnold and Percival White; Holiday House, New York NY; 1961

Women's Work - The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber; W.W. Norton & Company New York, NY; 1994

Costume and Fashion - a Concise History by James Laver; Thames & Hudson Inc.; New York NY; 1969 and 1982; Chapter 10 1995 and 2002

Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor - Unraveling the Linothorax Mystery by Gregory S. Aldrete and Scott M Bartell; Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore Maryland; 2013

© 2014 Dolores Monet


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