“Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.” – Machiavelli
Linen is the oldest fabric known to man. The flax plant, from which linen thread comes, was used to make the textile materials dated as far back as Neolithic times. Traces of flax processing relating to the Bronze Age were also found in archaeological excavations in Spain. But most of the finds are connected to the later Iron Age, by which time flax was cultivated all across Europe, as far as Scandinavia. Even though the found traces of linen fabric suggest that the plant was already much appreciated in 8000BC, the extensive use of flax only started a few thousand years later in ancient Egypt, where it was seen as a gift of the Nile River: People are clothed with the flax of his fields (“Hymn to Hapi”).
Egypt holds the first rank in linen production, from antiquity as well as extent of the trade. The Egyptians excelled in the art of making linen, and some of the fabrics produced by them, woven from hand-spun yarns, were extremely fine – some would even call them ‘woven air’. What is absolutely fascinating is that the fineness of those yarns cannot be produced even today on advanced spinning machines, such was the superior skill of the ancient master spinners. This golden fabric was called by Egyptians ‘woven moonlight’ due to its singular beauty and the light reflective abilities. Considered a symbol of light, linen was seen as pure. It was also regarded as a mark of luxury and as such it became the most important fabric for Egyptians, who used it at times as a currency and sold it for twice its weight in gold. For Egyptians linen was not only an important commodity, but also the very fabric, in which they wrapped the deceased, using hundreds of yards of linen strips to mummified the bodies.
The Greek scholar Plutarch once wrote that the reason the Egyptians used the flax plant so much was because the colour of its blossoms resembles the eternal blue, which surrounds the world.
The history of linen is also closely interwoven with the Bible stories, where linen has been referred to as an ‘emblem of moral purity’. It is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament, but we will write more about that later when we talk about linen’s healing qualities.
Intuitively people all over the world knew its value and they grew flax and wove linen for their own use. It was regarded an important crop, both for crafts and commerce. Peasants in Russia used it to pay feudal dues and make payments to the Car’s treasury, while Russian princesses collected tribute in fine linen. Interestingly, linen has probably become the only natural fabric, which was equally appreciated by both, kings and the poor. And it is blatantly obvious that in the history of ancient times, linen holds a truly unique place.
Throughout time, it has persisted and it has become the most appreciated fabric in the history of humankind. Its Latin name linum usitissimum speaks for itself in this regard, as it literally translates into ‘extremely useful flax plant’. Useful and magical in many ways, linen has stood the test of time and it will never get to be an old-fashion thing of the past. More over, it now sparks the imagination of many designers, who bring its luxurious simplicity back to our attention. It will be fair to say that linen came back the full circle and it is now going through a well-deserved renaissance, as more and more people seek natural fibres to promote well-being and a healthy life style.