What is linen? History of clothing – Flax

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a cream-colored shirt with pleats and fancy sewing across the yoke

History of linen: The Tarkhan Dress, the world’s oldest woven clothing – linen,  from Egypt, about 3500 BC

What is linen?

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.

Roman stone carving of a man spinning flax, barefoot and wearing only a short tunic

History of linen: Man spinning flax (Museum of the Baths of Diocletian, Rome)

Spinning flax into linen

Then you take the fibers and spin them on a spindle into linen thread. 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.

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.

Where did people wear linen?

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 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 started 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.


By |2018-04-18T22:48:21+00:00June 8th, 2017|Central Asia, Clothing|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is linen? History of clothing – Flax. Quatr.us Study Guides, June 8, 2017. Web. November 18, 2018.

About the Author:

Dr. 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, Pinterest, or Facebook, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.

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