Linen: The Ancient Cloth That Still Beats Modern Fabrics
There is a relic of early humanity in the windows of basically every modern fashion outlet every summer. After years of cotton being the ideal textile for breezy summer clothing, the world’s oldest fiber has finally come back into fashion: linen. This natural beauty, along with wool, was the most used textile for clothing up until the Industrial Revolution, and despite the overwhelming amount of synthetically made fibers, it remains in demand to this day. What exactly is this ancient material, and how has it managed to stay relevant and desirable?
Linen storage room (CC0)
What is Linen?
Linen is a woven fabric made from what is thought to be one of the oldest agricultural crops: flax. Archaeological evidence points to flax linen fabric being used as early as 30,000 BC in the country of Georgia. By around 3000 BC the Mesopotamian’s had already mastered complete domestication of the flax plant and efficient production of flax linen fabric. The long, strong stem fibers of the flax plant are easy to spin into yarn and threads, what were then used to make everything from rope to cloth. It can be observed that linen cloth was developed by a variety of different places worldwide by many different cultures, as flax is a native plant in many different countries.
Flax fiber in different forms (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Available in a variety of different weights, strengths and weaves, linen has seemingly endless uses. In Medieval Europe, linen was used to make fine underclothes, tablecloths and ceremonial garments. It was an integral part of society and was considered a strategic resource, as important as steel and oil are to us today. In ancient Egypt, mummies were wrapped in linen, and even Vikings wore linen underwear.
Sample of ancient Egyptian linen from Saqqara, dating to 390-343 BC (Late Period) (CC0) and piece of modern linen dyed a midnight blue from ArmStreet.
There is no question as to why so many cultures adopted linen as their main cloth for clothing: wearing linen is an absolute pleasure. Linen cloth is known for how it relaxes next to the skin, how it drapes and wrinkles, and how it softens and ages over time. Linen is easy to wash, absorbs water without shrinking or warping, and is beautiful even when left undyed. The weave of the fabric gives it a luscious texture that looks great next to wool, silk, and other natural fibers. It is probably most revered for its breathability and ability to wick sweat and moisture away from skin, as well as it’s resistance to rot and insects.
The wonderful drape of linen on two dresses from ArmStreet.com
An examination of the average wardrobe of a person from the middle ages would predominantly produce linen and wool, with silk appearing later in the period. Un-dyed linens were used as underclothes, such as braies (underwear that look like shorts with a drawstring), women’s underdresses (called a “chemise”), undertunics, as well as hair coverings and veils. By using linen for underclothes, they would preserve their more expensive outer-garments from sweat, because linen is much easier to wash and bleach than wool.
A medieval underdress made from fine flax linen to serve as a base layer.
What Is It Used For Today?
Very little of the manufacturing process has changed over the years, with many countries, such as Ireland, taking great pride in the quality and cultural heritage of their particular linen. Being a natural fiber and a native plant, it’s considered a sustainable resource and a good alternative to cotton.
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Prior to linen’s resurgence in mainstream fashion, it has been very popular in reenactment communities worldwide. Huge popularity can be seen in groups such as The Society of Creative Anachronism - a worldwide group of people passionate about historical garments, fighting and ancient cultures. Linen is often used by the SCA because of it’s historical accuracy as well as it’s excellent performance in hot, humid environments, which many large events seem to be held in. It’s not uncommon to see garments that would have originally been made from wool constructed from linen instead, to provide the wearer with a historical look, while also giving some relief from the heat in Australia and North America in the summer.
Colorful medieval linen clothing from ArmStreet
Nowadays, linen is back in the mainstream after years of being maintained by a cult following from reenactment communities! Is there really any question as to why it’s back in the spotlight, though? Breathable, beautiful and environmentally sustainable, linen is an excellent choice of fabric for flowing summer dresses, smart collared shirts and breezy pants.
ArmStreet is a sponsor of Ancient-Origins and a well-known designer of top quality medieval clothing, accessories, and armor. We bring history to life with our own unique designs and take pride in our thoughtfully constructed, functional and undeniably beautiful products. From Viking relics to intricate Renaissance gowns, we are influenced by the past and inspired by modern technology to create truly distinct items for historical displays, Renaissance Faires, LARP, theater and movie, weddings and more.
Top Image: Fantasy linen dress wanderer by ArmStreet
Carr, K.E., 2017. What is linen? History of clothing. Available at: https://quatr.us/central-asia/linen-history-clothing-flax.htm
Bucci, J., 2015. Fashion Archives: A Look at the History of Linen Fabric. Available at: https://startupfashion.com/linen/
Thursfield, S., 2001. The Medieval Tailor’s Assistant. Bedford: Ruth Bean