Holly Ashby: The Long History of Linen
Linen, which is made from the fibres of the Flax plant, is perhaps the oldest known crafted textile. Laborious to produce, (especially as Flax plants have the unfortunate habit of stripping soil of all its nutrients) linen has throughout its history been highly valued, especially for its freshness in hot weather and soft, light beauty.
This history goes back a surprisingly long way. Archaeologists have found flax fibres in Georgia that are 34,000 years old, which is a time so distant that our entire climate was different and there was a great big ice sheet to worry about in the north. Brightly dyed in lovely colours, these fibres demonstrate that far from just throwing on fur and running around after mammoths, our Stone Age ancestors were busying themselves with being expressive and creative.
From its beginnings in this hazy, distant past linen established itself more and more in humanity’s consciousness. If we jump forward a little (well, about 30,000 years or so) to Mesopotamia, linen was the rare and extremely valuable fabric of choice for the priesthood and royalty. This trend continued with the Egyptians, who went to great effort to make this material - which is perfect in a hot climate - as white as possible, with the aim of creating something that looked like “woven moonlight”.
The poor souls who facilitated the Egyptian obsession for whiteness - which denoted purity - did so through a long, difficult and onerous process of scrubbing and rinsing. The people of this time could produce incredibly fine linen, and Egypt was particularly infatuated with the fabric because they could grow flax without the worry that it would exhaust their fields, for the flooding of the Nile restored the soil’s nutrients every year. Mummified pharaohs were wrapped in linen, and the linen curtains in Tutankhamun’s tomb were astonishingly well preserved.
The Romans were decidedly less interested in keeping linen white, and instead dyed it in an array of bright colours, which became more fashionable as time went on. The linen sails of Cleopatra’s ships were a deep, imperial purple, which is one of the oldest dyes known to man. A favourite of Roman emperors, the secret of how to make this dye was only recently rediscovered, but it wasn’t only purple that the Romans fell in love with. Caesar, for example, decorated the Roman Forum with deep blue linen that was covered in stars.
Needing to keep up their supply, the Romans cultivated flax in Britain and Ireland, but it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that linen caught on in northern Europe. In fact, at this time linen was worn under warmer woollen clothes, hence the evolution of the word lingerie. Even the word line comes from linen, as linen thread was used to determine straight lines. By the 16th century, rather than being the reserve of the incredibly wealthy (or religious), linen had become hugely popular. Competing with the English wool trade, Irish-produced linen became established and formed a well-respected industry in the 17th century.
As people become more concerned about sustainability and want to move away from throwaway, man-made fibres, linen’s long history as one of humanity’s favourite fabrics is resurfacing. As a fabric, it’s deeply embedded in our culture, cropping up in both the Torah and Bible. Even the angels are described as wearing pure white linen (probably because they have great taste) and the qualities that made it a favourite with ancient royalty are all still relevant today.
Our range of linen clothing takes full advantage of all its natural advantages, and you can browse our scarves, shirts, skirts and dresses here.