A Brief History of Linen

“Linen is for tailors what marble is for sculptors: a noble material”

-Christine Dior


Linen is a truly timeless material; a natural fabric of great beauty.

Worn by Egyptian nobles in both life and death, fine linen garments and homewares were also sought by affluent Greeks and Romans for whom they signified status, wealth and purity. By the 18th century linen was a treasured keepsake, held by families and handed down on occasions of birth and marriage.

And so it is that linen and its creation have transcended the ages. Through trade and bequeathal, to the present day — where it’s now both luxurious, affordable and undergoing something of a revival.

In this blog, we take a brief look at the world's most time-honoured textile.

The history of linen

The history of linen is long. At least 8,000 years long according to textiles found in the Swiss lakes region. Artefacts recently uncovered in Georgia may even suggest our ancestors were weaving wild-flax linen some 30,000 years ago. If that’s true, one could justifiably say the story of linen is intertwined with that of man itself.

What is certain is that common flax (the plant from which linen is derived) was one of the first crops to be cultivated, and that this began in the ‘fertile crescent’ of the Middle-East. From here flax, linen and the methods used to fashion it, spread along ancient trade routes through India and China in the east, to North Africa and Europe in the west. 

Formally known as ‘the land of linen’, ancient Egypt was the first major producer of the textile — and they make good use of it. Durable, quick to dry and cool on the skin, local flax linen was a staple of Egyptian life, where it was used in everything from clothing to currency and most famously, mummification.

The flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) stands about three feet tall and blooms pale blue from June to July. During a process known as ‘retting’, flax stems are broken down into numerous hollow fibres. These fibres can then be worked and woven into various forms, including rope and cloth. 

Linen’s versatility and beautiful draping quality made it a fitting choice for fashionable folk of the Classical era. For Greek women it was the ‘pelpos’ and for Roman, the ‘stola’ — both were made of linen, sometimes in combination with wool, and worn in a layered fashion customary of the time. 

During the middle ages flax harvesting and linen production moved into North West Europe, where the industry began to thrive. By the end of the first industrial revolution, prized linen was being handed down from generation to generation as an heirloom — a testament to the quality textiles that were being produced in the region.

Why French flax linen?

Renowned for its off-white colour, and superb breathability, French linen has long been a preferred material for textile designers and manufacturers.

But what explains the quality and reputation of French linen? Well, much of it can be traced to the ideal flax growing conditions present in Northern France — namely the damp ocean climate and rich soils of Normandy. 

The rest is due to mastery of this environment by generations of French farmers, who’ve perfected the art of flax sowing and harvesting. Not to mention the tireless work of local artisans who, using time-honored traditions, were able to produce some of the world’s most exquisite and collectable linen — even by today’s standards.

Flax linen today

Today linen is enjoying something of a comeback, both on the runway and in the home. The reasons for this are both practical and ethical. Flax linen has proven its effectiveness as a highly durable, breathable and comfortable material —  but it’s also a highly sustainable and biodegradable product. 

Being the resilient crop that it is, flax requires much less water than cotton. According to the European Confederation of Linen and Hemp, a linen shirt uses an average of 6.4 litres of water across its life cycle, compared to some 2700 litres for a cotton shirt. 

Moreover, nothing is wasted during the flax to fabric journey — every part of the plant is put to good use. This includes the manufacture of linseed and flaxseed oils, seed collection for future seasons and reusing green waste for cow feed.

Kate & Prue xx