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A Short History of Flax:
The flax family, Linaceae,
contains about 230 species from all over the world. Linum angustifolium
is a wild flax found at early sites such as the 3000 BC Swiss Lake
usitatissimum is the cultivator used through most of history as a
fiber-producing plant. It grows to 4 feet high and bears small blue
flowers. The stem contains the fiber, making it a bast fiber. The seeds are also used in producing linseed oil and
medicinal uses for flax can be traced to the Ancients in Greece.
It is theorized by some that the strain of flax used for very
fine linens in Medieval times has been lost; modern flax does not seem
to grow quite as fine.
Extant examples of flax and linen are scarce
because plants are easily decomposed in acidic soil and the bogs which
preserve wool are acidic. Alkaline
bogs exist in Switzerland, however, which is how we know of brightly
colored linen woven by the Swiss Lake Dwellers from 3000BC.
The items found there indicate that linen weaving and dyeing was
already an established practice, and analysis of the items reveals
complicated techniques. The
earliest example of preserved linen I am aware of is a needle-netted
linen headpiece from Nahal Hemar Cave in Israel from 6500BC [Barber].
The Egyptians were masters of fine linens - items
found in Egyptian tombs display threads so fine they were woven to 200
threads per inch. Before
3000 BC they had mastered working with linen to the extent of creating
intricately seamed, fringed and pleated garments [Barber].
The Bible contains dozens of linen references, as
in Exodus chapters 26-28 where it describes the construction of the Arc
of the Covenant. Forget the
myth that linens were always white, because these verses often refer to
scarlet and purple linens.
Scandinavian “linen” finds have turned out in
most cases to actually be fiber from nettles [Barber].
Hemp fabrics have also been labeled as “linens” in
archaeological finds because identifying vegetable fibers requires
careful analysis and is impossible for carbonized remains.
Since these are all bast fibers, the processing and spinning was
most likely very similar to flax.
Medieval linen was used for ropes, clothing, and all sorts of utilitarian fabric such as towels and tablecloths. It was most commonly woven in tabby (“linen” weave), but fancier fabrics can be found; fancy twills, woven laces like Huck, diaper, Damask, and brocades. Linen was instrumental as a ground fabric for many textile products; tapestries, most embroidery, and many wool and silk brocades were held together by linen.
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This page created May 4, 2001
Last updated February 18, 2003