A short cultural history of linen ...
, from which linen is made, is one of the oldest agricultural plants in the world
. Over 5000 years ago the Egyptians named it "woven moonlight", due to its very singular beauty. A little less poetic, but all the more apt, is the Latin appellation: "linum usitatissimum" – the extremely useful flax plant.
Both the stem and the seeds are of great benefit when correctly employed. The stems are rich in fibre which is used in the production of yarn, and the seeds in oil, protein and mucilage which can be utilised for foodstuffs, animal feed, medicine and the winning of linseed oil. Today, different breeds of flax are cultivated for different uses: fibre flax and oil flax.
Because of the amazing versatility of the plant – perhaps only to be compared with the role that bamboo plays in the Asian culture – people have always held it in high esteem.
The poet Adalbert Stifter, for example, was inspired by the sight of the blooming blue flax fields around the area of his native home. Here are a couple of the lines he wrote (in a free translation from German):
"The flax plant is a friend of man’s;
this plant loves mankind.
And now I know, that this is so."
It can be proven that flax was grown in Egypt as early as the 4th millennium BC. Art works from that time depict the progression from the harvesting to the treating of flax, to retting, hackling etc as a sequence of ceremonial actions. Linen bandages were used during the anointing of the mummies. The garments of the living, especially the vestures of the priests, were knitted from linen yarn. Linen was considered to be a symbol of purity.
This symbolism may have its roots not only in the remarkable power of resistance which the stem of the flax plant brings to bear against the forces of nature and weather, but even more through experiencing the permeability of linen cloth for the respiration of the skin and again through the magnificent white colour tone which bleached linen possesses.
In Ovid’s "Metamorphoses" the Egyptian goddess Isis
is addressed as "dea linigera
", which means the "Linen Goddess
”. The "linigeri" (the wearers of linen) were the priests belonging to the Isis cult in Rome.
From quite early on, methods were developed to weave the rugged linen fibres in an especially dense manner. The Etruscan city of Tarquinii supplied the Roman fleet with strong, hard-wearing linen canvas for sails around 500 B.C. Particularly densely-woven linen soaked in linseed oil (also taken from flax) and hardened by oxidation through contact with air was worn as armour by the Etruscans.
Vessels made employing the same process were used as a substitute for glass!
The cultivation of flax which still flourishes today in Belgium and Flanders arose out of a long tradition: we can go all the way back to Plinius to find the whole of Gaul, including the Celtic inhabitants of the Netherlands designated as "weavers of linen".
We know of Charlemagne's predilection for linen. And, in the saga we find Frau Holle spinning and guarding the flax
Flax played an important role in the Middle Ages and linen became a valuable commercial article. A flourishing linen industry arose in Europe. In Germany, this was to be found especially in Silesia, Westphalia, Alsace and Swabia.
The commercial dynasty of the Fuggers, who became by far the richest family in the whole of Europe, began with the linen trade in the German city of Augsburg. Jacob Fugger, known as "the Rich", was the son of a weaver.
On the mountain ranges of the Swabian Alb, which are high in precipitation, flax was still cultivated in large quantities during the 19th century and then woven into cloth of exceptional value in the homes of the local peasants.
With the beginnings of the machine age, a steady decline in the culture of linen weaving set in in Europe. Handcraftsmanship, which is just what flax most demands, became increasingly expensive, and the rapid development of the cotton and later synthetic industries pushed flax more and more aside and into the corner. Its merits were forgotten and, in the end, pure linen was hardly to be obtained anywhere!
It's only been in the past few years that linen has been rediscovered, and that has led to today's renaissance. A newly-awakened sense of the quality of life and of the ecological consequences of what we cultivate and produce is what has brought about the rediscovery of linen’s virtues.
As soon as we examine the cultivation of linen more closely, these attributes become very obvious. Flax thrives on poor soil
, and even when using conventional methods of cultivation, it requires only small amounts of fertilizer
. In fact, it reacts to overdoses of fertilizer by producing fibres of reduced quality. Monocultures, with their negative consequences for the quality of the soil and for the animal world, are automatically prohibited: flax can only be grown twice on the one field before signs of “flax fatigue” begin to appear. An interval of seven years is necessary before flax can be cultivated on the same field again. Pesticides – with just one exception, which is in cases of acute fungal infestation – are not necessary. Absolutely no chemical medium
is required in order to loosen the fibres from the stem. This can be achieved after the harvest either through the traditional method of rotting or “retting” the flax on the ground (which means allowing the natural rotting of the woody sections of the plant through fungi and microbes to take place) or through applying modern techniques which achieve the same thing by utilising high pressure steam.
These days the fibres are bleached using hydrogen peroxide
and not chlorine
, as they used to be. This reduces the pollution of the environment. But because we at die-Leinenweber want to avoid the use of even these chemicals as far as possible, the fabrics we offer are mainly unbleached and in their natural colour.
The qualities of fabrics other than linen are normally strongly manipulated through the use of textile chemicals during the final upgrading and finishing processes, which the customer who ultimately buys the fabric gets to feel very close to his skin. Linen is very different here – a mechanical-thermal process suffices in order to attain a luxuriant, soft, grippy feeling to the material.
Our little company grew totally out of a personal fondness for linen. This plant is good for us. And we know, that this is so!
May this page help win new friends for linen, who know how to prize its worth for man and nature and its aesthetics of sophisticated simplicity ...
... and who open up their homes and their wardrobes for it once again, regardless of the current dictates of fashion!
Further information about flax and linen (in German) can be found under www.flachs.de