FLAX - Through the Centuries

To the question, 'Is it Linen or is it Flax?' To be Irish and answer 'Yes'. The confusion is in name only, not in the fibre. It stems from the absorption into the English tongue of the same word from two different languages, from the Germans for 'Flax' and the old Romans for 'Linen'.

Botanically, the flax family is called 'Linaceae', one of whose members yield the flax plant of commerce - it is 'Linum usitatissimum' or 'the most useful flax (to Man)'. The flax plant is an annual that grows to a height of three or four feet and supplies the lengthy fibres, which are an important feature of linen.

It cannot be said how old it is, and is known to have been cultivated in the Near and Middle East for more than 4,000 years and that it existed at least as long in the wild state up to the Black Sea and Caspian areas.

Earlier still, in the Stone and Bronze ages, flax growing was part of the husbandry of the Swiss lake-dwellers, who cultivated another variety, which figured prominently in their lives. It might even be said that their lives depended on it because it was the source of the lines and nets with which to catch fish for food, and cords and ropes for hunting in the outdoors and for carrying and building needs. Evidence of flax in different stages of working was unearthed in the course of excavations of the oldest known of these lake-dwellings, which is dated around 8,000 years BC. Llinen enjoys the coveted distinction of being the only textile to have been of down-to-earth service to man since long before the dawn of history.

That it still continues in the functional role pin-points one fact which never receives the publicity it deserves, and it is this; if there is a better fibre, if there's even a comparable fibre, it has successfully hidden itself from man for over 10,000 years. And, don't forget linen has won its enviable reputation the hard way, without the aid of press or TV advertising. Iit has for centuries enjoyed a rather subtle form of advertising in the world's biggest selling book of all time, the Bible. Between its pages we find references galore to linen. The first mention in the Bible of linen by name is when Pharaoh exalted Joseph to the second place in the land of Egypt . The exact passage is worth quoting -'And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph's hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen and put a gold chain about his neck'.

In both Exodus and Proverbs we read of the spinning of flax, while in Kings it is recorded that Solomon received linen yam from Egypt which, by the way, Ezekiel also mentions as a source of fine linen. In Leviticus the priests are forbidden to indulge in blending fibres, the exact warning is -'Neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come upon thee'. The implied contamination of flax by blending with other fibres - a type of blending incidentally that is highly fashionable today - is deep-rooted and traditional. So firmly had the inherent purity of linen established itself over the years that it is not surprising that a link was forged between linen and religion. Incredible as it may sound, it was the only material which the priests of ancient Egypt were permitted to wear next to their skins. Even today Christian churches remain a linen stronghold. Indeed so many altar cloths are made of linen.

There is much evidence that in ancient civilisations linen enjoyed a matchless reputation. The writings of the classical Greeks have repeated references to this quality article. Thanks to one of their historians, Herodotus, we know what the fashionable ladies of ancient Babylonia favoured. The ensemble, is scarcely calculated to appeal to the fashion of today, because it consisted of 'a gown of linen flowing down to the feet' with a blouse or upper garment of wool on top and covered completely in a white tunic. Through Greek influence the ancient imperial Romans became such ardent linen customers that they eventually developed a linen-producing industry of their own.

But it was in Egypt that the first known linen industry proper was set up. As long ago as 4,000 BC Egypt was actually operating linen weaving factories to meet the heavy demands of both the aristocracy for clothing and the funeral undertakers for ritual burial. This was back in the days of Egyptian mummies when ritual burial was observed, and linen was the exclusive, the automatic, material in which a dead body was wrapped. Something like 1,000 yards of linen were used in preparing a king for burial. For lesser mortals a mere 300 yards sufficed. So vast indeed was the output of linen from Egypt 's slave staffed factories that some twelve hundred and fifty years before the birth of Christ, Phoenician merchants had set up a thriving export trade with Mediterranean countries in Egyptian linen and linen yarns.

As to when exactly Britain became converted to the use of linen, history is unfortunately silent. There is evidence that linen fabrics were in use in England around 370 BC and were probably introduced by the trading Phoenicians who visited the coasts of Britain as early as 900 BC It is likely that linen was made in England prior to the Roman invasion in 55 B.C. In any event, centuries later, when the Roman army of British occupation set sail for home, the Ancient Britons had acquired an appreciation of linen that lasted for a time, though it was as late as the end of the 13th century' before linen came into general use in England.

About the same time, in Ireland , the use of linen was known, though not on a wide scale and may very well have been introduced by the Phoenician traders. In his Vita Agricolae, Tacitus, the Roman historian, says that 'the ports and landing places of Hibernia are better known than those of Britain through the frequency of commerce and merchants'. The all-powerful Brehon laws compelled the native Irish farmers to learn and practise the cultivation of flax. The Life and Acts of St. Patrick, written in Latin by Jocelin, a 13th century' Cistercian monk of Furness, records that St. Brigid's wish was to 'enshroud St. Patrick's body in a linen cloth made by her own hands and woven for his obsequies'. A fifth century' epic poem mentions an Irish hero wearing a linen shirt next to his skin, though I doubt if it had the easy-care properties of those worn today. 'Donat, who was bishop of Fiesole in Italy about 803, describes Ireland as 'dives vestis' i.e. 'rich in garments or clothing'. The same thing appears in a passage in the Polychronicon by Ranulph Higden, an English writer who died in 1362'. In a poem written in 1430 by Hakluyt, a patriotic English traveller, there is a passage which proved that linen-cloth was at the period imported into Chester from Ireland, 'Hides and fish, salmon, hakes, herring, Irish wool and linen cloth . . . ' There is evidence too that in Tudor times linen constituted part of the Irishman's wardrobe and that flax growing was on so vast a scale that Parliament passed a law forbidding the retting of flax in rivers. The idea here of course - and it is very pertinent to the English lovers of clean water today, especially English anglers - was to prevent the destruction of fish and fish life by the poisonous effluent from a flax rettery. If only the pollution safeguards of these mediaeval people, uncivilised we are led to believe by modem standards, had been religiously observed by their descendants, the rivers of the modern English welfare state would not now be the victims of the polluticians in our affluent society.