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Linen: From Past to Present

For a long time, linen has been considered an expensive and luxurious fabric in many different cultures around the world. As one of the oldest known textiles, linen has been used throughout history in many different forms, from sacred clothing and objects to household textiles. Apart from the more obvious uses such as clothing and bedding, it has also been applied to structural constructions, sails for ships and even shields to be used in battles. There is so much to be studied and learned about linen, and the following is a brief account of how it is produced and used for different purposes, from its oldest form to its most contemporary one.

Linen fabric is made from flax, also known as Linum usitatissimum, which is a tall, thin plant with white or blue flowers. After the plant has been harvested and rippled (process used to remove seed bolls from stem) the fibres from the flax plant are extracted from its stem through a process called retting. Retting is essentially the decomposition or rotting of the plant using water to “dissolve the pectins which connect and bind the fiber bundles to each other” (1). It then undergoes a laborious process to be made into yarn and then woven into a fabric. With time, many technological tools and machines have been developed to prepare the linen, however, the process with its many steps remains similar to the one used in Ancient Egypt.

The earliest linen textiles were “discovered in a cave at Nahal Hemar in the southern Judean Desert in Israel”, around 7000 B.C (2). Later around 5000 B.C. in Egypt, linen began being made and woven in a plain weave. Their linen was divided into four types: byssos, fine thin cloth, thin cloth, and smooth cloth. The byssos linen was the most precious one and was used only for “priestly vestments, royal burials and clothing divine statues” (3). At some point, everyone learns about the mummification process that Egyptian leaders went through after death, and the cloth in which their bodies were wrapped was none other than linen.

One of the many uses of linen throughout history was weaving it in larger scales to make ship sails and to be integrated into the architecture, as was done in Ancient Rome. Linen dries fast and is even stronger when wet, which made it perfect for sails and also for “awnings in the theaters and amphitheaters that protected spectators from the sun” (4). As well as added to buildings for specific purposes linen was and is still used in some places today as a building material, mostly in vernacular architecture. Using fibers such as linen in construction can be a sustainable way to build, and it is a technology applied to contemporary projects. A group of architects called MARGEN-LAB constructed prototypes of bioclimatic domes using wood and linen. Its design combined with the use of linen makes it easier to achieve cross-ventilation while keeping the sun and heat out. The linen is also locally sourced and produced, which makes it even more sustainable because it diminishes transportation.

When discussing linen and sustainability, there are also many new companies and designers using it in fashion. Although linen has been used as clothing for centuries, it can now be used more widely and more consciously as a sustainable fabric. There are many designers such as Flavia Aranha who uses linen and naturally dyes it to make clothes. She is a Brazilian designer, so she makes her clothes for women who live in very warm and humid weather most of the year. By using linen, which is cooling, and local and national natural dyes she has found a sustainable way to bring her designs to life. These are only a few examples of the myriad of uses that linen has had and still has today. It is an eco-friendly and versatile material that can be applied to many different areas of human life.

Footnotes and Links

Giovanna Pedrinola is an artist born in São Paulo, Brazil and currently living in New York City. Her most recent mixed media works explore connections between the physical body and the subconscious mind in an attempt to comprehend our existence. This combined with her fascination of ancient traditions, architecture, dance, music, textiles, rituals, and cosmology, generates a continuous research currently archived as text and images.

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