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August 8, 2010

Flax (linum usitatissimum), hemp (cannabis sativa) and members of the nettle family (urtica doica) all have in common a tough, woody outer stem inside which are bundles of long strong fibres suitable for spinning and weaving. The material they produce is hard wearing, conducts heat away from the body and readily absorbs or wicks moisture which, in an age before deodorants, made the material comfortable for wearing next to the skin. 

Flax, from which linen is produced, is an adaptable plant growing throughout Europe as well as China, the Baltic countries and Egypt. Although relatively  little is commercially produced nowadays, both Egyptian and Irish linen used to have the highest reputation for quality and fineness.

The  archaeological evidence suggests that linen has been cultivated since early times: spinning weights or whorls have been found in excavations of neolithic sites in Iraq, Iran and Syria. The earliest Celts, the lake dwellers in Switzerland, and the Egyptians have also left evidence of linen cultivation and spinning. A tomb painting at Beni Hasan shows the process of drop spindle spinning.

Flax cultivation and linen making would have been done by small households who would have tried to produce enough for their needs, though sometimes tithes and taxes were also paid in bolts of linen cloth. Itinerant weavers travelled between households to make cloth fron the spun yarn.

The word ‘spinster’ to indicate an unmarried woman shows just how much of a woman’s time was taken up with this essential activity and paintings of rural pastimes, such as those decorating books of the Middle Ages, invariably include women with distaffs, spindles or wheels which arrived in this country from Europe during the Middle Ages. The original great wheel contained a metal spike upon which Sleeping Beauty pricked her thumb in the old children’s story.

Despite its strength and resilience, linen thread could be spun into a variety of thicknesses ranging from ‘country wear’ like the old shepherds’ smocks to the fine cloths suitable for babies or the under garments of gentry. However, unlike wool which contains tiny hooks that attach themselves to other fibres and make spinning easy, linen is smooth and the fibres need a damp atmosphere and fingers to adhere which makes spinning linen more difficult as the thread is more likely to break. Although linen can be successfully dyed, it does not accept lasting vegetable based dyes very readily. It does, however, have the advantage of washing progressively whiter and softer with age, and its general longevity as a fabric means that garments made from linen were sometimes mentioned in wills up to the 17th century.

Its place was gradually usurped by cotton, especially during the nineteenth century when there were a  number of cotton mills in England around the Midlands. However, for those who could afford the extra cost, linen was still preferred for its fineness and durability.

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