Here, there, and Everywhere: Linen

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1 – Welcome to #ThreadTalk, #Linen edition! And we're all about contrast.

Humble yet durable, whimsical yet dainty, seen yet unseen–linen reinforces the world's most ostentatious gowns & yet stands on its own, full of holes.

All from a plant 🌱 you beat with a stick.

Pale rose pink linen day dress with a gilet fronted bodice and sleeve ends of embroidered striped net mounted on the top of white lawn lining. Covered linen button details to the bodice and the back of skirt, fullness in back. Collar embroidered with rouleaux braid, and a black satin ribbon bow at the neck. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

2 – Linen is a material that comes courtesy of the flax plant, also known as linseed or Linum usitatissimum. And it's been with humanity for a long, long time.

See this painted linen shroud of an Egyptian woman during the Roman period (A.D. 170–200). She's prob wearing it, too.

This round-faced woman wears a fine tunic with narrow clavi (stripes); a mantle is draped over her arms. The construction of her garments is not easy to understand. The very deep folds below her right arm could be part of the mantle or might constitute tunic sleeves, while a tight sleeve visible around her left wrist could belong to the tunic or an undertunic. The fine fringe around the bottom could also be part of the tunic or of the undergarment whose upper border, decorated with purple triangles, is visible at the neckline.

The woman wears a great deal of jewelry; earrings, three necklaces, six twisted gold bracelets, and three rings can be seen. On her feet are red socks and black sandals. She is flanked on either side by Egyptian deities and seems to step forward from a light gray rectangle. The Met Museum.

3 – But Egypt is not even that far back in flax history. Dyed fibers in what is now Georgia (Europe) date back 30,000 years.

It's likely the plant was first domesticated in the fertile crescent, and has since traveled the world.

See below: flax plants, and flax components.

4 – The process of making linen is incredibly labor-intensive & includes the use of bacteria to break down the material in the elements.

The part of the plant we use is called the 'bast'–and we use the bast of other plants, too. Like nettle, linden, & even wisteria.

A harvester in traditional embroidered linen with a long thatch of flax in their arms.

5 – This absolutely delightful gentleman from Ireland walks us through the growing & harvesting process.

…including some great footage of just beating the fibers with a stick. And heckling. For most of history, plots like these were how flax was grown.

6 – Since it's not made of animal fiber, like wool (w/keratin), linen is impervious to moths, so extant linen isn't uncommon: multiple Egyptian burials have remarkably preserved linens, both daily use & fine.

Like these gorgeous embroideries of Adonis & Venus from 4th C Egypt

7 – Of course, mummies were wrapped in linen. Worn frequently in Egypt (cooling, breathable, fashionable–make sense) many wrappings were repurposed for burial.

& there's some evidence that a few garbage-souled Americans might have used said wrappings to make paper for profit.

A roll of mummy wrap linen, found in the tomb of King Tut.

8 – Linen weave is a plain weave: it's visible with the naked eye & looks delicate. But that's where linen is sneaksy.

Linen fibers are strong & cool to the touch. They're breathable & durable, but not elastic so they can break & w/extended wear. (Dude is ca. 600 AD; I feel you)

(c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London - 600s, Egyptian; Christ as Good Shepherd, red, blue, black

9 – Which is why we see linen all over the place–not just as the fabric in clothing itself, but as in lining. We get the word "lingerie" from the same cognate.

Linen provides structure beneath the fanciest silks & most sumptuous brocades. See this round gown from Italy, 1798.

10 – In the world of embroidery, linen is also 👑. Because if its natural airiness, it works up beautifully for needles.

So for centuries, tapestries & embellishments have made use of this fabulous fabric to great effect, like this one from Peru with silk, wool (1720).

(c)Victoria and Albert Museum, London - A portion of a tapestry woven in coloured wools, silks and silver-gilt threads on cotton. The design depicts a variety of Asian-derived motifs of creatures and flowers against a red background.



At the centre of the design is a large bird with bright plumage, probably a phoenix depicted as being similar in appearance to a peacock. This bird is surrounded by flowers and leaves of differing shapes and sizes and also a number of stems bearing strawberries. Amidst these forms are numerous creatures: merpeople playing stringed instruments (suggestive of lutes); a crowned lion, parrots and other birds with multi-coloured plumage; a unicorn with its head lowered; dog-like animals, one of which wears a golden collar; and two mythical creatures with the appearance of stylised lions.

11 – Cutwork lace, my personal favorite, is also born of flax and linen, and I must introduce you to this absolute unit of a coiff.

It's from Italy or Flanders, and just keeps going and going and… whew. 1550-1600 or so. 🔥🔥🔥

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Coif of white linen gathered into a small needle lace roundel at the top, and with very long lappets which are integral and which taper gradually to a point. Decorated with horizontal bands of needle lace in a pattern of small open squares, each one containing a motif arranged diagonally, to give a chevron effect. Edged with small triangular needle lace motifs, each one finished off with a tiny trefoil.

12 – Linen is super strong when wet, linen was even used to make make armor. Yup! You heard me right.

Called Linothorax, it was popularized by the Greeks & may have been many layers of linen put together with animal fat or natural gum or glue. (see Achilles & Patroclus below <3)

Achilles heals Patroclus, since he learned the arts of medicine from his tutor, Chiron. Both men are believed to be wearing linothoraxes.[citation needed] attic red-figure kylix, signed by Sosias, c. 500 BC, Antikensammlung Berlin

13 – As with anything ancient, there is some debate about linothorax (including the name), but it would have been lighter and more breathable than leather or forged alternatives.

Sources say even Alexander the Great was quite a fan of linothorax. And mutton chops, apparently.

The Alexander Mosaic of Pompeii, depicting Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, wearing the linothorax[3]

14 – Some linen fun facts: The little bumps in linen are called slubs.

Linen resists stains & discoloration from dirt; its smooth fibers mean it doesn't pill, like cotton or wool. It also softens the more it's washed!

This calash hat is reinforced with linen. I <3 it.

 Silk, cane and wire, linen lining - a very fun green hat made out of caning on green fabric concentric circles. Almost like a covered wagon on someone's head. From the Boston MFA.

15 – Yes, linen wrinkles. That's because the fibers snap easily. But it's part of the charm, really.

And if you're like the owner of this Egyptian (2323 BCE) dress, you just lean into the whole wrinkle thing. (Pro tip: ironing while damp is the best bet.)

This dress consists of three pieces. The sleeves and half the bodice were made of a single piece of linen, which was sewn on top of the skirt, leaving a V-shaped opening for the neck. The pleating was most likely done by hand prior to assembly. After washing - with natron serving as soap - the pleating would have been redone for wearing.  Boston, MFA

16 – Some commonplace spots for linen: handkerchiefs, baby's clothes (so much), walking dresses, sport clothing, printed textiles, waistcoat lining, embroidery backing, canvas backing (especially in Europe; in the US we still use canvas).

Or, you know, 15th C shields.

This shield is painted with a coat of arms belonging either to the Gottsmann family or to the related Türriegel family, both of Franconia. The female figure at the side holds a banderole inscribed in part with a motto in German: HAB MYCH ALS ICH BIN... (Take me as I am...). The decoration, with its brilliant colors on a silver-foil ground, is remarkably well preserved because it was hidden for centuries beneath layers of later paint. On the leather-lined back of the shield are traces of a painted figure of Saint Christopher, whose image was thought to protect against sudden death. - Met Museum, public domain.

17 – In the American South in the mid 19th century, you see a rise in linen, because of course. I live here. In the summer it's like the devil's armpit & I have AC. No wonder petticoats were made of the stuff.

She makes it work here. 1870, undyed linen. Scalloped! I dig.

A beige, scalloped dress from 1870. It has a high collar, and long sleeves, and a criss-crossed stole that matches the rest of the dress. Large buttons. Very beige. Beige beige.

18 – Though muslin reigns supreme in the Georgian and Long Regency, some still sought the airy glory of linen. This blends cotton & linen.

Shut. UP. This is just stunning. I love the way the cutwork makes it look like Celtic knot work, too. Very faerie queen. 🧚‍♂️ ca 1815-1820.

A high-waisted Empire gown with cutwork lace in linen on the bodice, shoulders, sleeves, and hem. The skirt is mostly cotton. In white. High-necked. The Met Museum, public domain.

19 – This 18th century Spitalfields (Massachusetts by way of England) number uses linen bobbin lace for the neck flounces to grand effect. I mean, what else could you do to add to a pattern like that? Not much. But the right hand, and the right skill, and it's killer.

20 – Which reminds me: Another fun place you often see linen is in stomachers.

Stomachers were slid onto the front of open gowns in the 15th and 16th centuries and were often beautifully embroidered–more often than not, were backed with linen. Kind of a mix'n' match concept.

©Victoria & Albert Museum, London - Woman’s stomacher of bleached linen, backed with coarse linen, lined with a finer linen and reinforced with strips of baleen. It is embroidered with coloured silks in stem and satin stitches and French knots in a single branching stem, bearing exotic flowers and leaves, against a ground of back-stitched diaper pattern. The edges are bound with narrow yellow silk grosgrain ribbon.

There are two pins, one loose headed and the other solid headed, underneath the lining.

21 – You knew it was inevitable.

This is a linen sailor suit. From 1898. That is all.

A linen sailor suit for a woman in the late 1800s. It's beige. From the Met Museum. Public domain.

22 – You know the Edwardians did not mess around when it came to tea gowns and linen and lace. This one is c. 1905, and it's a doozy (in a very good way). Battenburg lace? Cutwork panels? Appliques? Heavens to Mergatroid. PALE PINK. Also for sale. Help. Send help.

2 piece cream Battenburg lace w/ cutwork linen insertions & pastel colored embroidered appliques on bodice, embroidered net lace plastron, sleeves & neckband, B 34"-36", W 25", trained skirt L 39"-45", (ribbon on belt torn, back hemline soiled, 4" tear in brides near hem, waistbands on bodice & skirt replaced) very good. Suddon-Cleaver Collection, Toronto. via Augusta Auctions

23 – This Robe à la Polonaise from the Met is surprising! It dates from between 1865-1875 and I was sure it was cotton. Zooming in shows me it's indeed linen! Just printed like cotton.

I… like it. Especially the delicate bodice pleating.

A Robe à la Polonaise, American, in two pieces -- an overdress, and an underdress. It has a high collar, and long sleeves. The overdress has a print of tulips and is beige. The underdress is white. It has a narrow waist and buttons all the way down. The bodice has pleating at the chest.

24 – How about another Edwardian darling? This romantic cornflower blue — or wait, is that flax blue? — looks like it walked off a movie set. Pristine.

Dating from 1915, made in England. A seaside inspired number, but not quite as sailor Sally as before. Bonus organza collar.

Linen day dress with a silk organza collar and cuffs and silk twill bow. Simple sea-side frock has as its focal point a large spotted silk twill cravat which is loosely tied in a bow to fasten the bodice front. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

25 – And lest you think that linen must be beige or blue…

::puts on sunglasses::

This baby is from 1855-1860. Embroidery! Buttons! Drama! MUCH PINK. (Also for sale.)

Pink linen day dress w/ bodice front gathered into W, faux 1830s revival gigot sleeves, linen covered button button CF closure continuing down over CF skirt to hem, maple & scrolling leaf motif in white cotton soutache braid to CF skirt, cuffs & W band, 1855-1860 - via Augusta Auctions

26 – ON THAT NOTE. Here's a video of a delightful woman making nettle fibers. Because, as you recall, nettle is another way you can make bast fiber.

27 – And a lovely piece from the Google Image Project all about Irish linen, which goes into far greater detail than I can in such a small space:

https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/the-story-of-irish-linen-flax-to-fabric-irish-linen-centre-lisburn-museum

28 – So that's linen! Or flax. Or linseed. And now it's time for sources.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linen
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flax
https://blog.fabrics-store.com/2015/04/02/a-brief-history-of-linen/
https://www.tailoronten.com/blogs/news/9275507-a-history-of-linen-and-how-it-is-made
https://ritaroyd.co.uk/weaving-fabric-history/looms-textiles/what-is-linen
https://us.toa.st/blogs/magazine/history-of-linen

https://www.fergusonsirishlinen.com/pages/index.asp?title2=History-of-Irish-Linen&title1=About-Linen

29 – Sources Part II –
https://fashion-history.lovetoknow.com/fabrics-fibers/linen-fabric
https://www.uen.org/cte/family/clothing-2/downloads/textiles/timeline.pdf
http://char.txa.cornell.edu/IndianTex.htm
https://grandmaslegacy.wordpress.com/2018/08/10/linen-saree-central-india/
https://weavingword.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/medieval-monday-turning-flax-into-linen/
https://www.nature.com/articles/srep02686
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bast_fibre

https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/tsaconf/569/

30 – Sources Part III –
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linothorax
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4662938/
https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/the-story-of-irish-linen-flax-to-fabric-irish-linen-centre-lisburn-museum/dAJSPGdTeZMGIg?hl=en

https://archaeologicalmuseum.jhu.edu/about-us/2014-institute-of-museums-and-library-sciences-grant-awarded/rehousing/linen-mummy-wrappings/

31 – A little less rage this week on #threadtalk, and a reminder that it's okay to enjoy beauty sometimes.

I leave you with a linen Robe à l'Anglaise from
1725–50, a more common beauty that's held the test of time.

Thanks for listening!

Linen gowns, plain versions of contemporary dress, were popular with gentlewomen for morning wear in the English countryside. These gowns were very sensible, as they could be laundered often and still retain a fresh appearance. They were often decorated with embroidery, usually stitched by the wearer herself. Embroidery was considered a gentle, feminine occupation for ladies of all classes of society. The lively floral embroidery on this day dress was probably done from a ready-made pattern, although the embroiderer has individualized the floral bouquets.

Oh! and one more — if you'd like to watch a hand-spinner.

Mesmerizing stuff.

Originally tweeted by Natania Barron (@NataniaBarron) on May 24, 2021.

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