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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 Dwellings.  Linum 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.

Related pages:

Flax Processing

Dressing a Distaff with Flax

Fiber Bibliography

All content copyright the author, Jennifer Munson munson.jennifer@gmail.com The author makes no guarantees for instructions and recipes on this site; neither does she accept responsibility for their outcomes. Verbatim copies may be made for educational purposes only provided they contain original copyright marking.

This page created May 4, 2001

Last updated February 18, 2003