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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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).
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. 🔥🔥🔥
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)
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
21 – You knew it was inevitable.
This is a linen sailor suit. From 1898. That is all.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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:
28 – So that's linen! Or flax. Or linseed. And now it's time for sources.
29 – Sources Part II –
30 – Sources Part III –
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!
Oh! and one more — if you'd like to watch a hand-spinner.