What is Linen?

Linen is the most ancient vegetable fabric in the history of man. It was important to ancient Egyptian society, revered by the tribes of Israel, produced in twelfth century Ireland, and today has many well-established markets throughout Western Europe. The fiber has integrated itself within society as a luxury fabric as well as a utilitarian tool, used for sailcloth, fishing nets, and ropes. Linen’s enduring history parallels the durability of the fibers themselves, the only fiber that is stronger wet than dry.

Ancient Egyptians

Brief History of Linen:
From Pre-Historic Caves to Modern Markets

The earliest discovery of linen was made in 2009 when archeologists unearthed the fabric in a prehistoric cave in Georgia. This linen is the first known textile produced by man, dating to 36,000 BC. Flax growth and processing does indeed have a long and rich history. A discovery of linen that dates back to 9,000 BC was recovered perfectly preserved wrapped around the mummified corpse of Pharaoh Ramses II. Its longevity as a staple throughout history seems matched by its durability.

Ancient Egyptians endowed the cloth with symbolic significance as a representation of purity and called it “woven moonlight.” They considered linen to be a symbol of “purity” and “light.” In addition to its use for mummification, linen was also used as a form of currency. The image above shows flax harvesting on Sennedjem’s Tomb from ancient Egypt.

Linen was significant to ancient Israelites and is also mentioned in the New Testament. The Tabernacle, the holiest site of worship for Israelites, was adorned with curtains made of linen. When the high priest Aaron entered the Tabernacle he was clothed in a linen coat and girdle. The New Testament states that the seven angels who held their hands in the past and future of mankind wore pure and white linen, and in the Book of Revelations, those chosen for eternal life and happiness will be adorned in fine linen.

Today, linen fibers are primarily produced in Western Europe. Linen is produced in Poland, Austria, France, Germany, Denmark, Lithuania, Latvia, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Britain and Kochi in India. The primary center for linen production is Ireland. The Phoenicians brought linen to Ireland before the Common Era, but an established system for linen production was not fully developed until the twelfth century C.E. In 1711, the government established the Board of Trustees of the Linen Manufacturers of Ireland, and as a center for fine luxury linen production, Belfast earned the name “Linenopolis.”


Flax Fiber Varieties Affect The Feel of Linen

There are two varieties of flax fibers: shorter tow fibers used for coarser fabrics and line fibers used for finer fabrics. Flax fibers can be identified by their typical “nodes” which add to the flexibility and texture of the fabric. The cross section of the fiber is made up of irregular polygonal shapes which contribute to the coarse texture of the fabric. It can range from stiff and rough to soft and smooth.

Benefits of Linen

  • Can gain up to 25% its weight in water
  • Less likely to cling to skin as a thicker fabric would
  • As it dries out it becomes cool and billows, so the skin is continually being touched by a cool surface, perfect for hot, humid, and dry weather
  • Doesn’t stretch and is resistant to abrasion
  • Very durable and strong, one of the few fabrics that is stronger wet than dry
  • Resistant to moths and carpet beetles
  • Easy to take care of because it resists dirt and stains
  • Can withstand high temperatures with only moderate initial shrinkage
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