What is Linen? - History of Linen
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What is Linen?

Linen mummy shroud
A linen mummy shroud (with the mummy inside it)
Egypt, about 1000 BC (Vatican Museum, Rome)

June 2016 - Linen is one of the first fibers that people made into string and cloth. Linen comes from the flax plant, which grows all over the Mediterranean region and Central Asia. Flax is a tall, reed-like plant, with long fibers which make it easy to spin into thread. You pick the plants, and then leave them to soak in a tub of water or a stream until the hard outside stem rots away and leaves the long, soft fibers underneath. People call this retting the flax.

stone carving of a man in a loose wrap holding a spindle
Man spinning flax (Museum
of the Baths of Diocletian, Rome)

Then you take the fibers and spin them on a spindle into linen thread. You can spin linen into a thick, strong thread, or you can spin it very very fine, depending on the skill of the spinner and what you want to use it for. People in Egypt made sails out of coarse linen, for example, but used very fine linen for expensive tunics. It is hard to dye linen, so mostly people wore it white, the way it is naturally. Linen is not as warm as wool, but it is much softer and more comfortable on the skin (after you wear it a while; at first it is stiff and scratchy).

In Central Asia, people were spinning linen thread and rope by about 30,000 BC, long before wool. It took longer to invent weaving, but by 5000 BC, at the latest, people were weaving linen into fabric. In the first millennium BC, people in North Africa, Egypt, and Sudan, and West Asia mostly wore linen, while Greeks and West Asians and Germans mostly wore wool. By the Roman period, however, many Europeans wore linen tunics for comfort with wool robes over them for warmth, and in the Middle Ages in Europe this continued to be common, so that "linen" got to mean something like "underwear" (that's why most of our underwear is white). Our word "lingerie" is related to linen. In the Islamic Empire, on the other hand, people began to wear mainly linen and cotton, and not so much wool.

Learn by Doing - Different types of Cloth

Bibliography and further reading about the history of linen:

Eyewitness: Costume, by L. Rowland-Warne (2000). For kids, but mainly European clothing, from earliest times to modern.

World Textiles: A Concise History, by Mary Schoeser (2003). For adults.

Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years : Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber (1995). Not for kids, but an interested high schooler could read it. Fascinating ideas about the way people made cloth in ancient times, and why it was that way.

Spinning
Weaving
Cotton
Wool
Silk


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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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