Linen seems to be enjoying a fantastic revival in both clothing and household linens, which is merited as it is such a beautiful fiber and its qualities far surpass those of cotton or man-made fiber. A historical study of linen shows that linen is the oldest vegetable fiber (called flax which is then spun into linen) and the noblest cloth, both the purest, and the strongest. It also has the advantage of gaining extreme softness with time. Some of you will have experienced the fact that the most delicious of all linen sheets are the ones stored in our grandmother’s cupboards. Linen is now embroidered all over the world, but Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy are most famous for their exquisite work on linen. The Italians have mastered the dying of this fiber, which results in its extraordinary variety and depth of color unequalled on cotton. Egypt and Ireland are the two countries that come to mind in connection with the ancient history of linen, and up to the 1950’s Ireland, France and Belgium were considered the finest producers of flax. Now, it is also massively cultivated in China.
W.H Webb has retraced the history of linen in a lecture; it is most fascinating to discover through it the origins and symbols he evokes.
(Synopsis of W. H. Webbs’s lecture about history of linen)
Linen is one of the earliest products known to civilization.
When man settled down, he built himself cities, and cultivated the land. Amongst the products of the soil was flax, which once it has been spun into yarn becomes Linen. Linen is, therefore, the earliest vegetable fabric to be woven. When the tomb of the Pharaoh of the Exodus, Rameses II, who died 1258 B.C, – 3,000 years ago, was discovered in 1881, the linen wrappings were intact. In the British Museum, London, are pieces of mummy-linen 6,000 years old. Recently cuttings from these were microscopically examined at the Linen Industry Research Institute, Belfast, and were found to be as structurally perfect as linen made today. This confirms the contention we make of its resistance to the march of time. This is also important from the hygienic point of view, for there can be no doubt that harmful germs leave linen unscathed, otherwise, in these cases, the linen would long ago have been destroyed.
Through out the Old Testament we can find mentions of fine linen, which was held as an emblem of purity. For example the curtains of the Tabernacle were made of linen and so were the vestments of the high priest Aaron. When he entered the holy place he put on a holy linen cloak and girdle and upon his head was a linen mitre.
In the olden days, each family grew flax and wove linen for its own use; but the earliest records of an established linen industry are 4,000 years old, and come to us from Egypt.
The Phoenicians, who, with their merchant fleet, opened up new channels of commerce to the peoples of the Mediterranean, introduced flax growing and the making of linen into Ireland before the birth of Christ, but it is not until the twelfth century that we can find records of a definite attempt to systematize flax production. When the Edict of Nantes was revoked, in 1695, many of the Huguenots who had to flee France settled in the British Isles, and amongst them was Louis Crommelin, who was born, and brought up as a weaver of fine linen, in the town of Cambrai in France. He fled to Ulster, and eventually settled down in the small town of Lisburn, about ten miles from Belfast.
Although the linen industry was already established in Ulster, Louis Crommelin found scope for improvement in weaving, and his efforts were so successful that he was appointed by the Government to develop this industry. The direct result of his good work was the establishment of the Board of Trustees of the Linen Manufacturers of Ireland in the year 1711.
From this history of linen we learn that linen is a formidable cloth, it is the strongest and purest material, it is unharmed by germs or worms, and it resists time and humidity. It is certainly the discovery of synthetic fibers and easy care materials which has accelerated the resistance to buying a fabric which needs careful ironing to regain its unusual crispness. It was the cloth of Pharaohs, Priests, and Kings. It remains the noblest and most luxurious material for the confection of the finest lingerie and nightwear, bed and table linen as well as decorative fabrics. It is rather ironic that the French and Italian weavers of linen are now producing a permanent wrinkle effect on linen. From the finest handkerchief to the thickest double damask table cloth exists infinite varieties and qualities of linen to spoil yourself with. Do not be deterred by its maintenance, the luxurious feel it conveys is well worth the effort.