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Flax Linen

A Brief History & Time Line

Flax linen is the woven cloth of cultural history and the threads that connected the continents, dating as far back as 10,000 years ago.

Linen is more ancient than the written word.

Origins

It is believed flax was first domesticated in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ (today’s Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria, Cyprus and Egypt).

India, Persia and China, may have come by the flax plant via the ‘Silk Road’ trading route.

It is known that the Chinese created oilcloth made from linen soaked in flaxseed oil—as far back as 2000 years.

Ancient Egypt

In Ancient Egypt flax was woven into linen fabric, made into garments worn as a display of wealth throughout life and the afterlife.

Around 2600 B.C. Egyptians mummified bodies with linen cloth strips soaked in resins and herbal preservatives.

The Linen shrouds used to wrap the Pharaoh Ramses II (died 1213 BC) was found in perfect preservation in 1881.

Egyptian Beliefs

Egyptian manuscripts tell of Isis, the Egyptian Goddess of marriage, fertility, motherhood, magic and medicine, taught the cultivation of flax.

Flax was believed to be a blessed plant, bringing good fortune, restoring health and shielding witchcraft.

Before Christ, Egyptian priests wore linen as a symbol of divine light and purity.

The Roman Empire

Flax was a sign of royalty, light and purity.  Romans wore linen robes and adorned their woman in fine linen dresses.

With the fall of Rome, Linen production and export came to a halt.

French leader Charlemagne, (A.D. 768-814) helped the revival of linen, pronouncing flax most sanitary.

Medieval & Gregorian Period

During the Medieval Period (Middle Ages 1145 – 1485) flax was the predominant plant fibre in Europe.

In the 13th Century Bartholomew, a medieval herbalist, claimed flax fibers most versatile, for clothing, diapers, bedding, bread sacks, water vessels, rope, resins and caulking.

During the 14th and 15th Century the flax linen industry flourished in Flanders as the Flemish wool industry declined.

16th & 17th Century

The 16th and 17th Century the prosperity of the flax industry fell into a deep crisis due to social changes and political riots.

In the 17th century European flax seeds were brought to Massachusetts and Virginia by ship.

By law, homesteaders were required to cultivate and spin flax, for a surviving economy.

In the New World, Native Americans used wild flax for fish nets and twine.

18th Century

The 18th century the rise and fall of European linen was the result of mechanization, war, high costs and competitive markets and tariffs.

In the 1700’s the finest linen cloths were produced in the ‘linen triangle’ Northern Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany and Belgium.

The invention of the North American cotton gin in 1793, made cotton fabric cheaper and easier to produce than linen.

The invention of the North American cotton gin in 1793, made cotton fabric cheaper and easier to produce than linen.

19th Century

The 19th Century linen production, as a cottage industry in Ireland and Scotland, was replaced with “wet spinning” power looms in city factories.

In 1810, Napoleon I, tried to stop English cotton fabrics entering the continent of Europe offering a reward for new inventions to weave linen.

By the end of the 19th century Belfast, Ireland was the linen capital of the world.

20th Century

In the 20th century, the rippling effects of the 1929 Great Depression, created a decline in Flemish, French and the Netherlands flax production.

During World War ll and the Korean War, the Flemish flax industry experienced a prosperous increase in linen exports.

The linen industry was furthered challenged by the cotton industry and the introduction of man-made and synthetic fibers.

Late-20th Century

In the late 20th century flax gains in the world economy, using new methods of combining flax with manmade, synthetic and composite materials.

The use of flax, for it’s inherent strength, resistance to abrasion and fiber stability, woven with other fibers gains value and promise of importance in major industries.

Flax fibers are used in the aviation and automotive industry, for furniture, flooring, insulation, bicycle frames surfboards and guitars.

Today...

Flax linen fills a niche in the 21st Century, new trends demand natural and quality eco-friendly clothing, linens and furnishings for the home.

Flax, a pure product, is a gift of nature. It grows natural (little to no fertilizers or pesticides), requires very little water and utilizes all parts of the plant, leaving a no waste footprint.

Flax linen is the fiber of the millennium, enhancing modern day living with unlimited creative possibilities.

More about linen growing, production and use...

References

  • Wikipedia, E: Bar-Yosef, ): Belfer-Cohen, A; Boaretto, E; Jakeli, N; Meshveliani, T (2009). “30,000- Year-Old Wild Flax Fibers”. Science. 325 (5946): 1359 PMID 19745144. doi: 10. 1126/science. 1175404.
  • Balter, M (2009). “Clothes Make the (Hu) Man”. Science. 325 (5946): 1329, PMID 19745126. Don: 10.1126/science.325_1329a.
  • The European Linen Industry in Historical Perspective. Edited by Brenda Collins and Philip Ollerenshaw. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003

Further Reading

  1. Flax in Flanders throughout the centuries, history technical evolution folkore: Bert dewilde (Drukkerij Lannoo n.v., Tielt, Belgium – 1999)
  2. The Magic of Linen: Flax Seed to Woven Cloth by Linda Heinrich (Orca Books, 1992)
  3. The Cambridge History of Western Textiles, Columns l and ll. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  4. World Textiles: A Concise History, Mary Schoeser (2003)

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