Linen: A brief (very brief) history

Linen: A brief (very brief) history

It’s fascinating how fashion, and the fabrics that are worn, are a reflection of society, your place in it, and how the waxing and waning of fabrics are often directly related to technology.

Let’s take linen for instance….it is one of the world’s oldest textiles dating back 10,000 years ago or more, from Mesopotamia to Egypt and then to Europe. There are references of linen throughout history from the bible to Greek gods.  It is made from flax, and is strong and durable and has been used from all sorts of things from clothing for the wealthy, wrapping mummies, sails, and for body armour. 

Because of the laboriousness of production, it has always been somewhat of a luxury item as clothing.  Peasants in medieval times in the West would more likely be wearing wool than linen.  More likely, some would have had undergarments made from linen; it was so durable it lasted years and so garments could be handed down.  You may have received your grandmother’s undergarments as an inheritance and been thrilled!

Linen was also commonly woven into bed sheets, napkins, and other household fabrics. The term “linens” became synonymous for household items such as bedding, tablecloths, and towels. The term survives to this day even though linens are made from a range of fabrics.

For more wealthy people, linen was very commonly used for undergarments and for outer fashion.  Interestingly, the word ‘lining’ which means ‘to cover the inner side of’ comes from the word ‘linen’ actually, as linen was used frequently used as an inner lining of garments.

During the Industrial Revolution however, the linen industry was overtaken by cotton production. Cotton fabrics were fast and easy to make on the latest industrial machinery; linen craftsmen working on hand looms struggled to keep up.  Furthermore, the use of slave labour in the Americas also made cotton much more affordable and cotton went global.

Linen somewhat went out of fashion as a fashion fabric.  Now, with strong interest in sustainable and natural fabrics and better technology, demand for linen is high as a luxury fabric.  For both women – and men.  Let’s not forget the light linen suit….Jonathon Evans said it well “Daniel Craig laughs in the face of danger. He takes a sip of a martini—stirred, not shaken, because this is the real world and shaken martinis are terrible—throws back his head, and releases a full-throated guffaw when met with any potential peril. So it should come as no particular surprise that the actor isn't scared of wearing linen well past Labor Day and the (unofficial) end of summer.”

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