Linen is amongst first fibers that people made into string and cloth. It comes from the flax plant, which grows all over the Mediterranean region and Central Asia. A flax plant is tall and reed-likethat has long fibers, making it easy to spin into thread. The plants are usually picked, and then left to soak in a tub of water or a stream until the hard outside stem rots away and leaves the long, soft fibers underneath. This process is called Flax Retting.
(Picture from www.archiexpo.com)
Flax has been cultivated for its remarkable fiber linen for at least five millennia. The spinning and weaving of linen can be seen on wall paintings of ancient Egypt. And as early as 3,000 B.C. , the fiber was processed into fine white fabric (540 threads to the inch—finer than anything woven today) and wrapped around the mummies of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs.
In fact, it was mentioned countless times in the Bible that linen was used as a cool, comfortable fiber in the Middle East for centuries; while the ancient Greeks and Romans significantly valued it as a commodity. On the other hand, Finnish traders are believed to have introduced flax to Northern Europe, where it has since been cultivated.
Entering the New World (Industrialization)
Linen was tremendously an important fiber in the New World. Since it’s relatively easy to grow, American settlers were urged to plant a small plot of flax as early as the seventeenth century. Nonetheless, they knew enough how tedious the chore of processing the woody stalks for its supple linen.
(Picture from www.leodis.net)
Just before the industrial revolution entered, most sturdy, homemade clothing was woven from linen. They were cultivated, processed, spun, dyed, woven, and sewn by hand. It may be argued that until the eighteenth century, linen was the most important textile in the world.
During the Late 18th Century
It was during this time that linen (made from cotton) became the fiber that was most easily and inexpensively processed and woven in the mechanized British and New England textile mills. However, by the 1850s, its production had virtually been abandoned in the United States because it was so much cheaper to buy the factory-made fiber.
Some New Englanders of Scot or Irish background continued to cultivate some flax for processing linen so as to use as bed sheets, towel, and decorative tablecloths, similar to what their ancestors had for centuries.