It should be an easy answer. It is something we handle on a day to day basis. We find it in our shirts, and even our bedding. But what is linen?

If you want to generalize it, linen is a textile, plain and simple. But it is much more than that. The history behind linen and its uses are rich and textured like the textile itself.

Linen has been around for thousands of years. The first evidence of linen was found in a prehistoric cave in Georgia where some dyed flax fibers were used 36,000 years ago. The earliest documented uses of linen were found in ancient Egypt. Like today, linen was used back then because the material was light and was good to cool a person from the extreme heat of the Egyptian sun. It was also used as burial shrouds during the mummification process. Linen was so widely used in ancient Egypt that evidence of the first linen industry have been found there.

The use of linen wasn't just restricted to the Roman empire; its uses were found in Greece and Rome as well. Initially, European countries favored wool, but when trade began opening up, linen was used, particularly the Romans who favored the lighter material for their tunics and togas. Eventually, linen made its way from France to England and eventually Ireland where the linen industry thrived in Belfast. During the 19th century, Belfast became known as “Linenopolis” when the American Civil War disrupted the import of cotton from the United States. England sought to find a suitable replacement and turned to their friends in the north where Irish linen became the much sought after fabric. Because of the demand, the process of weaving became refined and Irish linen became a much sought after fabric and continues to be in demand today. Linen, as a material, became embraced by emerging designers in Europe, particularly in Italy, and those same designers became ambassadors for putting linen back into our closets.

Linen is derived from the common flax (or linseed) which is a natural fiber found predominantly in Europe. A tall plant with long fibers, it is known for its long stem and the leaves that grow on one stem. The flower consists of lobes and each lobe contains two seeds. There are around twenty varieties of flax and they depend on the soil conditions, the climate and other factors. Once the plants are removed, the plant needs to release the fiber. This natural process can vary weeks to months. Once the flax is harvested, they are stored until it is time to extract the fiber. This lengthy process makes the creation of linen a lengthy and, at times, expensive process, but its durability and strength is incomparable to other fabrics. A few months of toil leaves you a piece that will last you a lifetime.

Linen’s versatility depends on the skill of the spinner and the strength of the thread can be very strong or very fine. It should be noted that when the tomb of Prince Ramses II was unearthed in 1881, the linen that was used to preserve the corpse was also in a perfect state of preservation. Ramses II died in 1281 BC Linen is also one of the few fabrics, whose strength increases when exposed to water.

Because it is hollow inside, this provides linen with that "cool to the touch" feature In its finished form, linen is normally smooth and tends to get softer the more the material is washed. It also has a natural luster. Because of its natural luster, linen symbolized divine purity and was also a symbol of social standing, which is why both priests and royalty in Egypt were also dressed in linen fabrics. Even the Pope got in the “linen=purity” business when he decreed that the Virgin Mary become the patron saint of linen.

The main reason wear people wear the things they wear is for one reason: comfort. Linen has been known as one of the most comfortable fabrics made. It is a healthy material and is soft on the skin. Studies have shown that linen sheets provide better sleep quality and the material itself is beneficial in cases of skin problems. It is antistatic. It eliminates dust and does not deteriorate through use (which Ramses II can attest!).

Besides clothing, linen has been used for other things. It has been used for bed sheets, table cloths, and bath towels and even in ancient Greece it was used as body armor. Today, its uses are wide ranging. Because of its strength, linen has been used for luggage and other industrial products, while its use has also been incorporated into home furnishings such as wallpaper, wall coverings and furniture fabrics. Linen also found its way into the art world when it was the preferred canvas for oil paintings. European artists favored linen canvasses for its strength and durability and integrity.

And believe it or not, linen has been used in baking as well. The French perfected the art of “couche”, which means layer, or go to sleep. Made from the natural flax fibers without dyeing, linen is used in the proofing stage of baking and is typically used for making baguettes and other long loaf breads.

Linen has also been incorporated into the manufacturing of modern currency. The paper made from linen tends to be very strong and crisp, therefore, currency in the United States and in other countries make their currency with 25% linen and 75% cotton.

The use of linen has increased in the last 40 years. In the 1970s, the use of linen for fashion fabrics was only 5%, but by 1990, that number increased to 70%.

The use of linen is varied and has been utilized as such. When we first thing of linen, we think of the shirt we wear, but linen is everywhere. It is those versatile fabrics whose use has increased over time. As technology has improved, the use of linen has been incorporated into different things. It is seen as an asset for its various properties (resistance, humidity absorption and hypoallergenic properties) and utilized for such purposes.

So now we go back to the first question: what is linen?

It is everything. It is everywhere. It has been used before and it will be used in the future. It’s resilience is only matched by its uses.

Linen - How it is made
Linen - How it is made

SOWING

Flax can grow in a variety of climates, but flourishes the most in cool, damp environments. Due to the tiny size of the seed, flax is planted on a windless day, and in certain rhythms and patterns so it is evenly dispersed. From seed-sowing, the plant takes about a hundred days to harvest. The flax plant grows to about three or four feet tall, with glossy bluish-green leaves and pale blue flowers.


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PULLING

When flax is harvested it is pulled up with the root system somewhat intact, rather than cut at the base. This method maximizes the quality of the fiber in several ways. First, it increases the length of fiber. Second, it prevents the plant sap from leaking out of the cut stalk, in turn allowing the plant to withstand longer period of stoking, which ultimately yields better quality fabric.
Even as mechanized farming has made great strides, machine harvesting of flax is still unable to preserve the root system. Hence, despite the extremely laborious process of manual harvesting, the highest quality linen is still made from flax plants pulled by hand. Fabric made from hand-harvested flax is finer, more supple, and more highly prized.


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STOOKING

The flax stalks are bundled together and tied. These bundles are called 'beets' and are left standing until they are entirely dry. Stooking allows the flax to dry evenly as against laying it out in the sun. Higher quality fiber turns white when dried, while lower turned brownish.


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Rippling

This process is used to deseed the flax. The top ends of the dried flak bundles are pulled through nails hammered into a board, like a comb. After this process, the flax can be stored for a while as long as it is kept dry.


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Retting

This process allows rotting of the inner stalk using bacteria, leaving the outer fibers intact. The process decomposes the pectin, which binds the stalk and fibers together, allowing the fibers to be freed from the stalk without damaging them.


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Breaking

This process allows rotting of the inner stalk using bacteria, leaving the outer fibers intact. The process decomposes the pectin, which binds the stalk and fibers together, allowing the fibers to be freed from the stalk without damaging them.


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Scutching

Shives that do not fall to the ground are removed by swinging a wooden scotching knife down the flax which scrapes it and releases the shives that remain.


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Hackling

In this process, flax is pulled through various different sized hackles, making it ready for spinning. First it is pulled through a hackle with nails fairly apart to remove the straw and then through a hackle with nails close together to polish and split the fibers. The fibers that come off on the hackle are bundled to provide a lower quality product, while the hackled flax that remains intact is cleaned once more to achieve a gloss and suppleness which makes it ideal for spinning.


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Spinning

Flax can either be spun from a distaff or a spinner can just lay flax fibers in his lap.

Weaving

This is the process in which flax threads are interlaced to form the linen fabric. On a loom, length-wise threads known as the warp are fixed under tension while another thread is woven through the warp which is called the weft. The warp threads are separated and the weft is carried through them on a shuttle.


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Bleaching

Linen is naturally a tan color which is then bleached white. After being bleached it can be dyed any color.