Flaxen fantasy: the history of linen

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Author: Tracy A. Keegan
Date: Aug. 1996
From: Colonial Homes(Vol. 22, Issue 4)
Publisher: Hearst Magazines, a Division of the Hearst Corporation
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,589 words

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Linen has been used by the Egyptians and Romans since ancient history. It first came to the US through the colonists who planted flax seeds and woove them into fabric.

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If ambrosia is the nectar of the gods, then linen surely is their fabric. Its creation attributed to ancient deities ranging from the Egyptian Isis to the Roman Minerva, linen in fact was the first textile made by man. Fragments of the fabric have been found among the remains of Neolithic lakeside dwellings, dating from about 8,000 B.C., in Switzerland. Derived from flax, a naturally insect-repellent plant, linen remains popular today. Linen products include the strongest sailcloth as well as the most delicate laces. Its versatility makes it a desirable fabric for both home furnishings and apparel.

These days we think of linen as a luxury, but for centuries, it was the basic material of daily life. Linen use was widespread among ancient societies. Egyptians, using a rudimentary loom, produced the finest variation of linen, called lawn, as early as 4,000 B.C. Mummies were wrapped in linen before they were entombed. The ancient Greeks wore linen togas, and Romans made paper from it. The Phoenicians wore a heavy grade of the fabric as armor, because it offered protection while allowing greater mobility than chain mail.

Made from flax bleached in the fields and woven on basic looms, white linen was so popular in ancient times that it took on a spiritual significance. Not only does white suggest purity, but linen was revered as part of a tradition that linked purity to plant-based textiles. Coptic priests and druids dressed in white linen and the legendary Ark of the Covenant is said to have been kept in Solomon's Temple behind a large screen of gold-embroidered white linen. In 1854, when Pope Pius IX affirmed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the Virgin Mary became patron saint of linen maids.

There is a misperception that table napkins were among the first items woven from the fiber. Actually, linen was used more commonly for clothing and bedding long before it was used for table linens, although the ends of linen tablecloths were used at ancient banquets as a group napkin. Until the Middle Ages, linen napkins and tablecloths were something of a rarity. Because most meals were eaten while reclining - it was not until the Middle Ages that the sitting position was adopted in the West - textiles used for dining were rare. By the 12th century, however, tablecloths were universal in Italy and France, and by the 15th century, were found in homes around the world.

From Roman times on, flax was cultivated throughout Spain and the Low Countries. It wasn't until the 12th century that it reached France. From there, linen-weaving spread to northern Europe by Huguenot weavers, French Protestants who fled religious persecution in the 1600s. In some regions, weaving linen became something of an art. Today, Ireland and Switzerland continue to be known for producing some of the finest linen textiles in the world.

Spinning was a job consigned to women. "Deceite, weepynge, spynnynge God hath give/To wymmen kyndely that they may live," wrote Geoffrey Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales in the late 14th century. His lines touch on the status of women in his day and for centuries after. Spinning was considered tedious, time-consuming "women's work" and it was assigned to an unmarried female in the family. So often was this the case that the word "spinster" soon acquired the meaning it still retains today Weaving, however, was always a man's job. Itinerant weavers would often visit a household to weave all the cloth needed for a year from the family's supply of spun flax.

In the 15th century, the chores of the family "spinster" were considerably eased by the invention of the flax-spinning wheel. The device eliminated the need for the hand-held spindle, which enabled more yarn to be spun in a shorter period of time. Two-handed spinning wheels were introduced at the end of the 17th century. The wheel was turned by a treadle worked with the foot, leaving two hands free to spin. In poorer families, members often worked in shifts, keeping the wheel in continuous motion, greatly increasing their ability to earn a living.

By the 17th century, household items of hand-woven linen were an expensive status symbol of the upper classes, woven to commemorate marriages and other important occasions. Favorite themes in designs were mythical and religious subjects and hunting scenes. Crests, dates, and names were incorporated into the design, while decorative borders, often in fruit or floral motifs, surrounded the central subject. Called damasks, their beauty lay in the weave of two different types of linen yarn. A silvery, high-luster crosswise weft thread was woven into a creamy, lengthwise warp thread. Today, damasks remain costly.

Linen production came to the American colonies with the first settlers. They planted flax seeds brought with them from Europe. Soon linen was the most commonly used fabric in the Colonial period. But common is a relative term here. Today, most of us have a difficult time understanding how prized linen, or any fabric for that matter, was to colonial households. Fine, imported fabrics were costly to people with little hard cash. Most fabric production began in the household, and that meant starting from scratch by cultivating the flax, in the case of linen. This began a long, labor-intensive process; a length of linen had a great deal of value as a result. So valued, that household inventories listed linens immediately after land holdings and money. Rents and tithes were paid with linen bolts; most linen cupboards and chests had locks to protect the contents.

In the colonies, spinning became a social event. Diaries mention the custom of taking spinning wheels on spinning bees. The book Labours of Love, (by Judith Reiter Weissman and Wendy Lavitt, published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1987) describes a young, Goshen, Connecticut woman who won a contest by spinning three-and-a-half days' worth of yarn in one day. To help her cause, "Her distaffs (staffs for holding flax) were all prepared, her yarn reeled, and even her food put in her mouth." The word "distaff" is another textile term that lives on in the expression, "the distaff side" or, woman's side.

The 1787 invention of the mechanical spinner increased linen production as Joseph Marie Jacquard's loom revolutionized weaving in 1801. Still, the finest linens were woven by hand. With mechanization, handwoven linens became more costly. By the time the power loom was sufficiently improved in the 1850s, advances in cotton production allowed it to become the most important textile in apparel and furniture.

Today, more than twenty billion acres of 90 varieties of tax are grown primarily in the Northern Hemisphere. The linen-making process begins with retrieving flax seeds from the pod. They are used for next year's crop, or for linseed oil, the basis for paint varnish, soap, and linoleum. The residue is cattle cake, a highly-prized, high-protein food for cattle.

Retting, or rotting, is the next step in the process. The substance binding the fibers together is decomposed with the help of microorganisms. In dew-retting, a Russian technique, the uprooted flax is left outdoors for three to five weeks, producing strong, gray linen. Water retting, primarily used by the Belgians and Irish, rets the fibers by leaving them in running water and produces a classic, pale-yellow linen. Some Irish producers soak fibers in still water, resulting in a bluish gray, but weaker fiber.

Scutching is done by a machine that breaks and beats the flax straw, separating the fibers in the stem of the plant from the woody matter. It is then combed and drafted until a rove a slightly twisted sliver of fiber - has formed. This is spun into a yarn, or mixed with other fibers like cotton or silk.

The yarn is woven or knitted into a great variety of fabrics, the quality of which depends not only on the thread count but also on the treatment after weaving - bleaching to improve texture, whiteness, and acceptance of dyes.

Linen textiles include the figured, woven patterns of damask; the coarse, linsey-woolsey, a linen-and-wool blend that is wonderful for home furnishings; cretonne, a printed drapery fabric in a variety of weaves and finishes; lawn, for ethereal lingerie and handkerchiefs; waterproof duck, used in doctor's uniforms and sneakers, and (heavier grades) for conveyor belts and boat sails; buck, a towel fabric; and lace, made from threads of linen, cotton, and silk. Fine grades of the fabric are used as artist's canvas. And since the yarn is smooth and hard, patterns woven in linen show clearly, so even fabrics without dyes or prints have their own unique characteristics.

Designers and their clients creating modern interiors often demand texture and several varieties of linen deliver the look. Brocades, tapestries, moires and chenilles are particularly opulent for traditional interiors and offer both durability and excellent drapability.

Today, linen is used for more than just tablecloths and napkins; the latter's origin dating back to the 1422 coronation of French king Charles VII, in Reims, when the town's weavers presented him with a linen set that included individual "serviettes." Even today, fine table linens remain somewhat pricey as do linen bedding and towels. But there is value to consider: Linen fibers absorb one-fifth of their weight in water. This increases towels' absorbency, and makes for cool sheets on hot summer nights. Linen is also static- and lint-free, in addition to being moth and mildew-resistant.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A18599708