In the early days of civilization, garments were not so alluring. Fabric as what we recognise today did not exist in those days. Thus, clothing in that time was heavy and quite gross. However, in no time, the creative nature of humans came up with the fibre that instigated the fabrics of today. This fibre is called linen.
Linen is soft and stunning fabric that is probably the earliest known textile. The history dates back to thousands of years. For instance, in a prehistoric cave of Georgia, the archaeologists have unearthed flax fibres that are 34,000 year old and are perhaps dyed with bright colours. Similarly, the Swiss lake findings also include fragments of yarns, fibres, seeds, straw, and other types of fabrics belonging to the period of 8000 B.C.
After evolving from the primitive state and nomadic lifestyle, man finally started settling down by building towns and cultivating land. One of the early products being cultivated was flax whose fibre was processed further manually to make linen. Therefore, linen is perhaps the first vegetable fabric that was woven. The fibres were woven into textile and pelts were extracted for this cleaner and more manageable raw material.
The deliberate cultivation of the flax plant started between 5,000-4,000 BCE in Fertile Crescent and North Africa. From the very beginning, linen was considered as a holy fabric.
In ancient Mesopotamian region, especially Ur and Babylon, linen production was rare with only 10% of all fabric production. Although it is not tough to grow the plant as it takes only 100 days to mature, it absorbs most soil nutrients due to which the field needs to remain uncultivated for many years post harvest.
The linen making process was laborious to take another 150 days. As a result, only elite members such as kings and priests could afford linen stuff. Even across the Sinai Peninsula, the Nile river valley gave a more affordable ecology for growing flax, after some years. The river’s annual flooding resulted in alluvial deposits, which refilled the nutrients. With increasing slave labour building the pyramids, flax became the first food crop of the ancient Egypt.
Flax was cultivated in the Fertile Crescent in 7000 BCE. While the Babylonians were the first to start flax weaving, Egyptians who are famous for linen in the primeval world. Linen was also used as currency in Egypt. It was considered as a symbol of purity, wealth, and light due to which Egyptian mummies were wrapped in it. A few of these fabrics were woven from manual yarns and seemed to be very fine. However, they are coarse as compared to the present day linen.
In ancient Egypt, the fabric gained importance due to its lightweight quality, resistance to insects, antimicrobial properties, smooth texture, and ability wick moisture away, which is ideal for hot climates.
Egyptian art of this time shows an intense course of scrubbing the fabric, hitting it on a stone and rubbing it with leather, and reiterating this process until it is put to dry in sun.
During the 12th to 8th century B.C., the Phoenicians who were navigators exported linen for the first time: They carried linen from Egypt for making it reach to Spain, Ireland, England, Rome, and Greece. As of 1,700 B.C., from the Nile to Red Sea, the canals allowed sailing from Tyre in Egypt to India and China.
These traders first introduced linen to Europe in 900 B.C. Romans set up linen factories in Gaul and Britain for fulfilling the need of their colonial forces. However, the prominence was only gained in the Middle Ages in Europe.
With their merchants, the Phoenicians opened up new mediums of commerce to Mediterranean people. They also introduced flax growing and linen making into Ireland before Christ. However, the internal expansion impeded the establishment of an organized linen industry. As a result, it was only in the 12th century AD that definite records for standardising flax production became evident.
In the 4th century B.C., the Romans conquered Egypt and their view about linen was totally opposite. While Egyptian linen was fully white, Romans introduced the vivid, bright dyes. In ancient times, in almost each nation, each family grew flax and wove the resultant linen for personal use. However, the earliest evidence of a well set linen industry come from Egypt and are 4,000 years old.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire in Egypt, a chain of Islamic dynasties took over in the 7th century AD. Until this time, flax cultivation was widespread all over the lower countries of Europe. According to Pliny’s writings in 77 CE, different varieties of flax were cultivated in various regions. In Spain, Egyptian flax was woven but was not at all strong.
Such production went on until the 12th century, when Italy and France started using linen for tablecloths. Quickly, all clothing was made using linen and that by the 16th century; flax was widely produced across Europe and other continents. Linen was no longer a reserved fabric for the elites, as the popularity grew by leaps and bounds.
In the early 13th century, Baptiste who was a weaver from a town near Cambrai mastered the extremely fine method of weaving. The resultant cloth was exported to Spain, England, Italy, Flanders, and Holland. The batiste weave soon became the most preferred material for table linens, handkerchiefs, and inner wear.
Linen flourished even in the American colonies, especially amongst the farm households. Each household or family had their own flax plot from where flax was processed for spinning and weaving by hand, each year. Homespun cloth usually merged with the commercial one in a household for making linens and clothing.
In the 15th century, the invention of spinning wheel for flax made manual spinning obsolete. In the 16th century, the weavers of Protestant Huguenot community escaped religious persecution in France and settled in northern countries.
They had rich knowledge of not only flax cultivation but also intricate methods of weaving linen. Flax sustained in damper and cooler climates due to which these weavers weaved ornamental damasks, proving more superior than those of Egyptians.
Many Huguenots settled in the British Isles. One of these was Louis Crommelin who was a weaver of fine linen. He fled from Cambrai to Ulster and finally settled near Belfast. While the linen industry was set in Ulster, Louis thought that it can be further improved in terms of weaving. As a result, he made efforts for the same, which were successful enough to force the Government to expand the industry.
In the 17th century, hands-free spinning became possible with a wheel run by a foot-treadle. By this time, household items created using hand woven linen were the elite status symbol. During this time, Ireland became popular in weaving the finest of linen, which is the recognition persisting till today.
The Irish harvest flax prior to maturity, which gave fibres to form up very fine as well as soft thread. As the plant is not left for maturity, no seeds are produced for use for succeeding crops. Thus, the linen industry in this nation even today is fully dependent on importing flaxseeds.
As several immigrants came to the colonies, a dozen of different communities cropped up for linen production, each with its own traditions brought from their homelands. These people took no time in learning that the drier and warmer climate of North America gave more delicate and coarser linen. The southern colonies used linen for ropes, canvas, and sailcloth; while northern colonies due to cooler climate made finer linens.
During the 17th century when Louis the XIV was ruling, fashion became much concentrated on the cut of clothing. Linen inner wear started appearing with finishing of lace and other fine stuff. The crinoline was first introduced during the regime of Louis the XVI in the latter half of the 18th century. Made of horsehair and linen, crinoline helped in holding the skirt up with blown up fullness.
During this time, all fabric warps were in linen for supporting sturdiness. This is the reason why so many items of this period, such as table linens, fixtures, and clothes have been conserved well to this day.
The Irish linen industry was established. The Earl of Strafford followed by the Duke of Ormonde encouraged this industry and took all steps to keep competition with the English wool trade away. Strafford brought other European experts to advice as well as imported high-quality flax seeds and Dutch equipment. The industry flourished well and Irish linen became a lasting, well-regarded textile.
During the early 19th century, Napoleon the 1st, with an aim to boost the French textile industry, announced a reward of gold money to the one who comes up with a linen spinning machine. In 1810, by hearing this reward, Philippe de Girard started to strive hard and gave a solution in just 60 days.
Linen spinning became a commercial success in the British Isles only when James Kay came up with a smart wet spinning process for flax. This happened in 1824 and was based on Arkwright’s spinning frame model. It was a turning point because the new process allowed spinning much finer as well as more even yarns. Prior to this invention, the finest linen yarns was 40 lea but this increased to spinning 200 lea with better quality than manual spinning and at less effort.
The latter half of the century witnessed mechanised spinning and weaving due to which linen production increased exponentially. Anything from towels to innerwear was made more quickly as well as economically than before. The arduous burden of producing linen now shifted from the rural farmers to more lasting metal machines. As a result, linen household items became more reachable to the lower classes.
However, it was only after the 1970s that linen expanded from household items to clothing that we see and love today. It was only at this time that linen became the ideally wrinkled textile of costly linen pants seen even today.
Until the early 1800s, homespun production of linen survived after which mechanisation of textile production was in full swing. The introduction of cotton gin in 1793 proved that producing cotton was more economical than linen. Each decade, the production of cotton in America doubled since 1800, as the gin reduced the manual effort for processing. This meant that the slaves could be sent to the fields for planting and harvesting.
Mechanization in weaving and spinning further stimulated the cotton industry, which took no time in overtaking linen swiftly as a cheaper fabric. For instance, the cotton spinning mills in Lowell, MA operated until the 1790s, while industrialisation of spinning linen happened only during the 1830s. Despite mechanisation of processing, spinning, and weaving flax during the decades of 1830s and 1840s, flax did not hold up with the production of cotton.
During the mid-1800s, many American small farms stopped growing or processing flax. Further, much of commercially available cloth was in use. During the American Civil war, home textile production witnessed revival to some extent but halted again when the textile mills shifted to the production of civilian goods.
Well, linen was yet in use for specific purposes such as canvas, bedding, inner wear, and work clothes. Production on fine linens shifted to a more specialised approach for drapery, tablecloths, and napkins. Apart from that, linen was also utilised for finer clothing because it was believed to be ideal for stiff uniforms, good clothes for summer, and crisp cuffs.
In the late 19th century, upper class men preferred wearing a suit of light coloured linen for warm weather. Even women had their summer clothes in linen, especially in the southern regions of United States, Mediterranean, and Caribbean.
In the 20th century, 90% of European linen was used in textile market and 10% to technical fields. The former included clothing, furniture, and household linens, while the latter included automobile parts, eco-construction, surgery, and boating.
Irish linen is still woven in the conventional areas where the industry was set. Although the recent industry is smaller because of cheaper fabrics, it survives even today. As flax is native to several regions across the globe, right from North Africa to Europe and India, linen has its historical evidence in different cultures.
Today, linen is a part of fashion world and is considered as an ideal alternative to cotton.