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Fabric Friday: The origin and characteristics of flax/linen

Discussion in 'PUBLIC Workshops - specialty vintage topics' started by denisebrain, Sep 10, 2021.

  1. denisebrain

    denisebrain VFG President Staff Member

    In a comment on my first Fabric Friday post, Barbara @Rue_de_la_Paix made the observation that linen is a fabric and flax is the fiber used to make it. This is an excellent point—some of us say linen is the fiber, but it is quite true that flax is it's source.

    Flax is the name for both the natural bast fiber used to make linen, and the plant from which it comes. Flax’s use as a fiber dates to 30,000 years ago (These Vintage Threads Are 30,000 Years Old, NPR.org). Yes, mind officially blown.

    The world's oldest extant woven garment is made of linen. The Tarkhan dress, named after Tarkhan, Egypt where it was discovered, has been dated to between 3482 and 3102 BCE. The fact that this still exists is a testament to the strength of the fiber, and its resistance to mildew and bacteria. Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia had the first organized linen industries.

    Linen did not take dye easily so it was often left in its natural oatmeal shade or bleached, and in the ancient world it was associated with religion and purity. Expensive and time-consuming to make, the fabric was also associated with wealth. Romans and Phoenicians brought linen-making to Ireland and Britain. Europe was ideal for growing the flax plant, which prefers a cool, moist climate. Huge industries enriched Belfast and Flanders.

    It is hard to imagine how someone got the idea to take this lovely little plant, with its nodding blue flowers, and make a fiber to make a fabric.


    The process by which the bast fibers of certain plants (flax, hemp, ramie and jute) are separated from their woody stalks is called retting. The resultant soft, resilient fibers have been used to make fabric for tens of thousands of years.

    Retting involves the rotting away of the stalk, through submersion in a body of water such as a stream or pond, dew moistening in a field, and more recently with the use of chemicals.

    The flax plant, Linum usitatissimum, is used not only for its strong, soft fiber, but for its seeds, and the various parts of the plant have long been used to make linseed oil, rope, paper, medicine, soap and dye, as well as fabric. The Romans called the flax plant Linum usitatissimum: most useful flax.

    This is an example of raw, retted flax

    Linen is the fabric made of the fibers of the flax plant, and because of the natural variations in the fibers, characteristic slubs occur in both warp and weft. It is of a balanced plain weave. Linen is coveted for its absorbency, strength even when wet, being lint-free and quick-drying. It is famous for its use in making garments worn in hot climates. The name linen is derived from linon, the Greek word for the flax plant, and linum, the Roman word.

    Bedding and table coverings can be called linens, no matter what their fabric.

    Here is relatively heavy and nubbly linen from a 1960s woman's suit

    On the other end of the spectrum, but still made from the same fiber, here is fine and semi-sheer handkerchief linen, from a (no surprise) handkerchief

    It's been so hot in my fair city this summer, that I fantasized about wearing something like this 1805 embroidered linen gown every day. It was sold by Whitaker Auctions, but not to me, sadly.
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    Thoughts? Questions? Favorite vintage linen items?
    Last edited: Sep 10, 2021
    Retro Ruth, Rue_de_la_Paix and Midge like this.
  2. Midge

    Midge Super Moderator Staff Member

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