What’s So Special About Linen?
By Awake! correspondent in Ireland
WOULD you pay $5,000 for a shirt? In the fourth century C.E., that was the price of a top-quality linen shirt in parts of the Roman Empire. The money represented 25 weeks’ wages for the highest paid linen weaver of the day.
Today, people still highly value all kinds of luxury linen goods. And if you have ever slept between crisp, cool linen sheets in a hot climate, you know that there is something special about linen. What makes it so special?
“Linen has been around for a long time, at least from the days of the ancient Egyptians,” said Roy, the divisional director of the Ulster Weaving Company. “They saw it as something sacred because it grew on the banks of the Nile River, and they even thought that their gods wore linen.
“There must have been a thriving linen industry around the Nile,” Roy continued. “Linen clothed both the living and the dead, since Egyptians used it when they prepared a body for burial.” And just imagine the expense involved! A weaver produced only about three yards [3 m] of linen a week, yet as much as a thousand yards [900 m] were used when burying a king!
Linen’s durability is shown by the fact that fragments have survived for thousands of years in the tombs of the Pharaohs. The cloth was also a mark of position and prestige, as indicated when Pharaoh of Egypt wanted to honor Joseph. The Bible says that he “clothed him with garments of fine linen.” (Genesis 41:42) Interestingly, Jesus’ corpse was wrapped in clean, fine linen by Joseph, a rich man of Arimathea.—Matthew 27:57-59.
Among the Israelites who left Egypt with Moses were those skilled in making linen. When they were in the wilderness, these craftsmen produced “fine twisted linen” for use in the construction of the tabernacle.—Exodus 26:1, 31, 36; 35:35.
Since the fabric is cool and comfortable, the people in Israel must have appreciated linen clothes. Moreover, they were easy to wash and keep clean, a real boon when you think of the laws in Israel that required the washing of garments for cleanness and hygiene. (Leviticus 11:25, 40; 13:34; 15:5-13; 16:4, 32) Fittingly, in the Bible, “clean, fine linen . . . stands for the righteous acts of the holy ones.”—Revelation 19:8.
“When linen is washed,” said Roy, “it loses a microscopic layer and so renews its smooth, clean surface every time. Because it is actually stronger when it is wet, linen survives repeated washings well.” How, then, do we get this remarkable fabric?
Freeing the Fibers
Very early in history, humans learned to make linen cloth from the fibers of the flax plant. It is not easy to extract the fibers that eventually produce beautiful, luxurious linen. Consider briefly the work involved, as it was done in times past in Ireland, for centuries a center of linen making.
In April or May, the flax seeds were planted by hand. For some 16 weeks, the plants were carefully tended as they grew into tall slender plants, topped with delicate blue flowers. The plants were ready for harvesting by the end of August, when the flax turned a brownish color. The plants were then uprooted by hand. Once the leaves and seeds were removed (linseed oil is made from the seeds), the hard work of freeing the fibers began.
To remove the fibers embedded in the plant stem, the stems were soaked in pools of stagnant water for about two weeks to let the woody bark of the stem rot. According to one authority, “this stage [called retting] is one of the most particular and decidedly the most disagreeable to be encountered in the management of flax.” Standing waist-deep in stinking flax pools, carefully hauling out the decomposing plants, and trying hard not to break the long stems was indeed disagreeable work!
The foul-smelling flax was spread out on grass to dry in the sun for another two weeks. Once the flax was dry and brittle, the stems were broken and beaten to get at the fibers. This process was called scutching. One writer claims that in his experience “nothing could have been more laborious in human toil than the old mode of scutching by hand.”
When the mass of silky fibers was extracted from the stalks, they were combed to separate the entangled filaments. The shorter ones were used to make coarse products, such as twine, fishnets, tarpaulins, and sails. The longer fibers were spun into exceptionally fine yarns, much finer than could be spun from wool or cotton, which have much shorter fibers.
A loom was used to weave the yarn into linen cloth. However, further steps were required to transform the plain, simple material coming off the loom into beautiful white linen with a smooth satin sheen. For example, the cloth must be beaten repeatedly to flatten the fibers. Afterward, the cloth needed to be bleached.
The Dutch became the recognized masters in the art of finishing and bleaching. One writer explained: “The Dutch system, as practised in Ireland, consisted of an eight or ten day alkali steep (either cows’ urine or a lye of seaweed ash), then a wash followed by two or three weeks in buttermilk or bran, followed by a wash, beetling [beating with wooden mallets to produce a high gloss] and protracted grassing [exposure to sun and air].” The whole process is said to have taken seven or eight months.
Nowadays, of course, mechanization and more scientific methods take much of the human toil out of linen making. Modern methods have also made it much easier and faster to produce not only plain-weave linens but also the more complicated weaves, such as that used in damask.
The term “damask” is derived from “Damascus,” where, during the Middle Ages, weavers produced this distinctive fine patterned fabric. The complexity of damask weaving is seen in a set of doilies sent by a Belfast manufacturer to Queen Victoria of Britain in 1887. Each damask doily measured only 17 inches by 15 inches [43 cm by 38 cm], yet each had 3,060 warp threads and 4,012 weft threads—two and a half miles [4 km] of thread in each doily!
But since all the threads are the same color, how does the pattern show up? K. G. Ponting, in his book Discovering Textile History and Design, explains: “Most of the patterning [in damask] comes from the fact that the light reflections of the warp and weft surfaces will vary. Linen damask, almost always in white, depends entirely on this light effect.”
The next time you examine a piece of linen, no doubt you will more fully appreciate the work and care that went into its production. You will be able to recognize what men and women have known for thousands of years—linen is truly something special!
[Picture on page 23]
Flax plants after drying