Lecture 4: Linen

Lecture 4: Linen
By Karen Finch

Flax production and the early use of linen in Egypt. Flax producing areas in Europe and the development of the linen industry. The properties of flax that facilitated its use for household and personal linen.

Editor’s note

The images in the right-hand margin (indicated by red numbers within the text) are the slides Karen displayed while she was delivering the lecture. We have retained Karen’s original numbering, so where slides are missing due to copyright issues some numbers will be non-sequential.

Part 1

Quite a lot is known to us about the long history of the textile industry because of the tombs of Egypt which are ideally suited for the preservation of textiles. They are dark, the relative humidity is constant and perfect and, above all, they have few visitors.

Thanks to these conditions, we have been able to learn about the materials used to clothe the ancient Egyptians and to furnish their houses. How these materials were made into cloth is shown on wall-paintings and by models given to the dead and left in the pyramids for their use in an after-life.

Textiles of many kinds were made from the fibres in the stems of the flax plant 1b, including vestments, household linens, hangings and mummy bandages.

The earliest cultivated flax was LINUM HUMILE which was soon superseded by the one that is still supplying all the flax used for weaving today LINUM USITATISSIMUM. A name which may be translated as the “very useful”.

Only linen made from cultivated flax has been found in Egypt even though wild flax, LINUM ANGUSTIFOLIUM, grows around the Mediterranean from the Canaries to the Black Sea and from the Caucasus to Palestine, everywhere, except in Egypt – so flax must have been brought there as a cultivated plant from an area where agriculture had been stable for some time because flax can only survive in well-tilled soil.

There is archeological evidence to suggest that flax may first have been cultivated in Asia Minor as early as in the 7th Millennium BC.

Flax was also grown very early in Mesopotamia, whose capitals of NINEVEH of Assyria in the North and BABYLON in the South have been called the cradles of civilisation.

Representations in various artforms including a Bronze statuette found at HAZOR in Galilee show that already by 2000 BC 2 people in these and surrounding areas were wearing quite sophisticated clothes.

Reliefs of about 900 BC depict the special Assyrian design which might be the Tree of Life 3 shown as a honeysuckle or which might be a central canal or river with irrigation canals going to the fences of a garden.

The Medes and Babylonians destroyed Nineveh in 612 BC. The ruins were found in the 19th Century by a succession of explorers. A French expedition found the colossal palace begun by SARGON in 707 BC which had 200 rooms. Sir Henry LAYARD re-discovered NIMROD’s city and the Royal city of ASHUR-BANI-PAL who was King of Assyria from 669 to 630 BC. They and many other explorers took away a great many bas reliefs, wall paintings and other materials to form collections in Europe.

The British Museum houses some of the greatest of these collections where depictions of the fabrics used by people of ancient civilisations may be studied.

Some of the work is immensely detailed, and it may even be possible to identify some methods of production as well as the designs as for example in a carving which shows the Royal Assyrian Costume of State 4 of about 800 BC, which appear to have consisted of a shortsleeved pleated tunic and a fringed shawl of elaborate workmanship.

In Mesopotamia wool was considered more important than was flax while in Egypt the relative importance of the 2 fibres was reversed. This meant that though flax may first have been cultivated in Mesopotamia, Egypt soon took the lead and started to export both flax and woven linen to her neighbouring countries. Depictions of Spinners and Weavers began to appear in the tombs as early as 4400 BC 5.

The reasons for Egypt taking the lead may be that Egyptian soil was better suited to flax or that her agricultural methods were more sophisticated. At any rate, the production of flax became part of the Egyptian economy with its complex trade and taxation structure.

Records of the organisation and the grading of flax go back a very long time. One of the highest officers in the administration of the Pharaohs was Director of the King’s Flax, an office which included the supervision of the cultivation and general preparation of linen thread.

Words for “flax” and “linen” used in ancient Egypt have become part of the vocabulary of linen manufacture.

The word linen itself is of Coptic origin and means equally the yarn, the weave and the fabric itself. It, in turn, probably derives from another old Egyptian word for dress, garment and towel as one concept.

Linen came to have a greater religious significance in Egypt than in other countries and this may be why the Egyptian language came to have more words for linen goods and their manufacture than any of the semitic languages of countries surrounding her.

The written history of Egypt begins about 5000 BC and, owing to elaborate burial costumes, specimens of funeral garments of the earliest dynasties have survived this incredible span of time.

In Egypt flax was believed to have been created by Isis whose priests were obliged to wear only linen and there is an Egyptian legend relating that flax was the first thing the Gods created to enable them to clothe themselves.

Linen was the only material used in connection with burial ceremonies from the first to the eleventh dynasties.

Wool was thought to be unclean and that is why woollen garments were forbidden to the priests when they were in the temple. Only linen was ever used for the actual mummy-wrappings. The quality varied according to the rank of the dead person, with the finest quality linen being reserved for the Royal House and the nobility.

Many of these shrouds are woven of linen threads of finer quality than that of the finest of the present day. Neither colour nor pattern appear to have been used for mummy wrappings until after the 11th dynasty so all the weavers’ skill went into producing fabric of an incredible fineness and delicacy of texture.

A piece of cloth found at Thebes had 152 warps to the inch and the looms at FOSTAT were said to produce linen so fine that a whole length could be drawn through a finger-ring. Quite apart from its use at fashionable funerals, such linen would have been very suitable for wearing by the living in a hot climate because linen fabrics have the ability to absorb moisture and release it quickly again, thereby making it feel cool to the skin.

Fine textures must have been especially appreciated both for their qualities of absorption and for their thinness. Their thinness would have facilitated pleating which we know from wallpaintings and actual examples to have been much favoured by the Egyptians though this treatment could be given to any quality of fabric.

Pleating would have been done when the fabric was wet from washing. Pleats, set in wet linen and allowed to dry, will last better than pleats ironed in with heat. Generally speaking, linen retains shapes given it by wet pressing better than by heat.

Several museums have collections of ancient implements for spinning, weaving and finishing of linen cloth both full size and in model form 12.

At UR fine linen garments were used to clothe the statues of the Gods. Palestine also produced very fine flax which is often referred to in the Bible. In fact the Bible gives several references to textiles and textile techniques.

In the laws of Deuteronomy which Moses was commanded to give to his people it says “Thou shalt not wear a garment of diverse sort as of woollen and linen together”.

The reasons for this ban may lie in the vegetable and animal origins of linen and wool respectively and in the rule that man should not mix what God had made separate.

This is a relic of ancient magical concepts with origins in the antagonism between the nomadic herdsmen and the farming ploughman which is the basic theme in the stories of Esau and Jacob and Cain and Abel.

Abel was the keeper of sheep and a hunter clad in the wool of animals and Cain was a “tiller of the ground” and clothed himself in linen, the fruit of the soil.

A liberal interpretation of the Law of Diverse Kinds, permits the wearing of a combination of woollen and linen garments, it is only the blending of the 2 fibres in a single fabric that is specifically forbidden as in the plaiting of woollen and linen yarns into a girdle or sash.

The law also allows woollen tassels on the corners of linen prayer shawls. The Law of Diverse Kinds may explain why no wool/linen blends were included with the numerous ancient pieces of fabric found in recent years in the Holy Land. Among the best known of these finds are the wrappers of the Dead Sea. Scrolls which were made from white linen yarns ornamented with blue dyed linen yarns.

Blends were common in the textiles excavated in PALMYRA, which was destroyed by the Romans after their siege in 272 AD. Textiles found there have been dated to the first Century AD and up to the time of the destruction.

In Egypt, the early Christians often ornamented their linen garments with coloured woollen yarns.

In many ways linen has continued to have religious significance and to be considered as a holy plant. Every age has thought of flax as clean and pure and used it to symbolise maidens and sexual purity. That is why the seeds are used against witchcraft 15 and Black Magic and why fine linen fabrics are used for holy rituals and for vestments. The Queen wore a pleated fine linen garment 16 for the first part of the coronation ceremony and Albrecht Dürer depicts the presentation of Christ on a white table cloth.

The Bible has described fine linen as the apparel of Kings, who might show favour by presenting a robe made from linen or by wearing linen for special functions.

When King David who reigned from 1002 til 963 BC brought the Ark to Jerusalem he “was clothed in a robe of fine linen” and in the story of Esther, King AHASUERUS at about 840 BC gave a linen garment to MORDECAI.

Fine linen was not only regarded as fit for kings, the Talmud said that “whosoever would adorn his wife, let him clothe her in fine linen”. The importance of linen can also be seen in the tradition which gave the Galilean women the right to retain their linen goods after divorce.

The domesticated type of flax raised in Egypt, the near East and the regions of the Caucasus may have been introduced into Europe during Neolithic times.

Cultivation of flax seems to have taken place everywhere in Europe during the Bronze Ages, although not necessarily for the fibres. The seeds as well were valued because they provided food and oil.

Throughout recorded history there have been references to flax and linen manufacture, but very few pieces of linen of an early date are known outside those found in Egyptian tombs. Of these few pieces some of the earliest specimens were found in Switzerland, where a civilisation of Lake Dwellers flourished about 3000 BC.

The existence of these lake dwellings was unknown until 1853-4 when they were discovered because the waters of the lake fell below their usual level and disclosed the remains of a civilization which had known spinning and weaving.

Linen fabrics, balls of thread and implements for processing flax into linen materials were found there. These include a wooden scutching blade and a hackling board with 270 thorns set in small holes. At LOCRAY, a spindle was found which still had a flax thread attached to it.

Scraps of fishing net and small pieces of cloth have also been found on the shore of Lake Zurich and can be seen in the Museum of Zurich and Lyons. All these fragments are rather coarse in texture, they are shiny black or very deep brown in colour and show a great variety of design and technique.

There was another series of Lake Dwellings at Meare near Glastonbury in Somerset which was occupied about 200 BC. No actual piece of cloth or even fibres have survived there but a great many combs, spindle whorls and loom-weights from these lake dwellings may be seen in Taunton Museum.

Phoenician trading ships roaming the known seas brought cultivated flax seeds as well as the finished products of yarns and linen into Spain and Italy and eventually to the British Isles, where the conditions for flax growing were particularly suitable in Ireland.

The beautiful fine and nearly transparent linen of Egypt was highly prized by fashionable ladies in Rome and many other places, and when linen of quality and for all purposes was eventually produced in Europe the standard set in Egypt were emulated as far as possible.

The expertise in growing and processing flax continued to develop and to become greater in those countries which provided the best natural conditions for the cultivation of the flax plant. Northern France, Flanders, the Netherlands and Westphalia in particular were able to produce really fine and very high quality yarns, which excelled over all other linen yarns.

Paintings and illuminated manuscripts show that when fine linen table cloths with matching rectangular napkins 19 became the fashion they were at first woven in plain or twilled weaves with borders of coloured JUXTAPOSITIONS 21 of these weaves or with embroidered borders in colour or open work 22. Very often they also have plaited or knotted fringes.

Blue or red borders or other ornamentation might signify linen because of the difficulties Involved in dyeing fast on vegetable fibres with any other colours.

Damask weave table cloths appear to begin to be depicted in the early fifteenth century. The techniques used might have been the quite simple ones we know as “poor man’s damask” on 2 or more parts, but from these only a short step remained to see the possibilities inherent in using satin weaves capable of reflecting more light from their relatively smooth and unbroken surfaces.

Italian weavers were probably the first to use linen yarns for damask weaving in the true sense.

They wove the designs to which silk weaving had accustomed them, showing fruits, flowers, leaves and strange animals.

These fabrics were exported to other countries in particular to Flanders where Italy had a great market for her goods. Bruges was the trade centre for Northern Europe at this time and from there, goods went to France, Germany, Bohemia, the Scandinavian countries and Britain.

The weavers of the flax-growing areas of these countries soon saw the possibilities inherent in weaving damask with their own, much finer, linen yarns. So, already by 1420, the linen damasks of Northern France rivalled those of Italy where the idea of linen damask weaving had originated.

When the weavers began to weave to designs which set out to make more effective use of the contrasts of dark and light areas given by the damask techniques 32 and emphasised by the material, the success of the northern European linen industry became assured.

The inspiration for the designs were the woodcuts and black and white drawings so popular from the 16th century onwards.

Soon the industry spread northwards from France to Flanders where COURTRAI became the chief manufacturing centre for more than 200 years.

The master-weaver PASQUIER LAMERTIJN was born in Courtrai but he was a protestant so when religious persecution from about 1580 made many Flemish weavers leave their home-town, HAARLEM became the new centre for linen weavers. Mr. Lamertijn worked from 1596–1615 in Holland and from 1615–1621 in Copenhagen.

In Holland he developed a free technique of weaving damask which enabled him to weave very big and complicated designs. These designs were immensely time-consuming and therefore expensive, so they could not always be sold at a price which would cover the cost of making them. Perhaps this is why he accepted the invitation of the Danish King to come and work in Copenhagen where he produced several masterpieces including one very beautiful cloth which is now at Rosenborg Castle, but the yarns he used were probably Dutch or Flemish because linen yarns were unlikely to have been grown and made as fine in Denmark.

Linen goods of all descriptions continued to be made and exported from all the flax-producing areas which soon came to include Westphalia and other parts of Germany and, from the 17th Century, Ireland and Scotland.

After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes more than 6,000 Huguenot refugees made their way to Ireland, among them Louis Crommelin from the St. Quentin district in Northern France, famous for its linen weaving. He was eventually encouraged by William III to start a linen industry in Ireland on the lines of his previous experience. Later, this industry was put under a Linen Board and Crommelin was appointed Overseer of the Royal Linen Manufactury of Ireland.

The export of Irish linen progressed in quantity until 1762 when laws to control the quality were passed, which at first had an adverse effect – however the industry picked up again and fine linens to rival the earlier pieces made by the Huguenots continued to be made in Ireland and in Scotland during the rest of the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries and right up to the last war.

Since then – alas – the production has fallen off, because of man-made fibres and modern washing powders, but there are still many purposes for which only linen materials will do, and this had luckily enabled the flax fields to continue to produce the raw materials necessary to revive the industry when fashion once again demands it to return.

Part 2: Aspects of the technology and properties of linen yarns and fabrics

Growing the flax starts with a field of well-tilled soil, able to retain moisture because flax plants need a lot of water, especially in the beginning of their growth. It used to be thought that flax plants exhausted the soil but this is not true. Like any agricultural produce, it is grown in rotation with other crops – usually on a 5-7 year basis. The plants are very strong and able to withstand rain and hail so it is rare to see a flattened flax field. This strength also makes it possible to weed a flax field without lasting damage to growing plants.

The method of treatment and preparation of the flax varies only slightly from prehistoric times to the present day, though flax is now grown EITHER for its seed OR for its fibres which become coarse and unmanageable if the seeds are allowed to ripen. Unripe seeds from flax grown for the fibres are used for horse and cattle feed.

After sowing, the field is harrowed to cover the seed 35 and then rolled. The field used to be kept free from weeds by crawling over the plants, and probably still is where smaller fields are concerned though now weeding can be done by spraying from aeroplanes.

Flax plants have to grow very close together, about 1,800 to the square metre in order to encourage long, thin stems with branches only at the top. They grow 3’ to 4’ high from a thin spindle-shaped root and have slim, smooth leaves and blue flowers. A flowering field is blue in the daytime but, as soon as the sun has set, the flowers close and the field becomes green.

When the lower part of the stem is turning yellow and the seed capsules begin to go brown, the plants are harvested by carefully pulling them out of the ground. A machine has been developed for this work but it can only be used on large reasonably flat fields – unlike most of those in Ireland where many fields had to be harvested by hand.

After harvesting the flax plants are dried in stocks to later enable the seed capsules to be removed.

This process is known as RIPPLING 37 – drawing the plants through the upright prongs of a large fixed iron comb or Ripple. Another tool for this work is a kind of mangle which can only be used if the flax plants have been stored or dried for a time beforehand.

A third method, also used after an initial period of drying or weathering, involves beating with a special beater like a washboard fixed to a handle, to loosen the seed so that it can be shaken into containers aided by paddle-shaped tools as seen in a tapestry woven at Mortlake from a French or a Flemish cartoon about 1620, which is on show at Kensington Palace.

After rippling, the flax-plants are tied in neat bundles, aligned from the bottom upwards for the next operation, RETTING 39. The purpose of retting is to separate the flax fibres from the woody matters of the stems.

It may be useful to study a diagram showing the flax stem 40 in cross-section. In the middle is the woody stem. Surrounding that is a space called “soft bast” which separates the central stem from the fibre bundles which are ranged round in a circle. Outside these is the “cortex” which is covered by an inner and an outer skin, the latter being almost waterproof. The number of fibre bundles in the stem varies from 15 to 40. Each bundle contains from 12 to 40 flax fibres.

The fibre bundles are stuck together with a sticky substance which may be called PECTINE CEMENT. This is essentially a substance called PECTOSE which fermentation turns into soluble pectine and insoluble pectic acid. There is a coating of this pectine cement round the outside of the fibre bundles themselves which makes them stick to the outer covering and to the central core of the stem.

Retting is a fermentation process, aided by a succession of microbes.

The critical point is when the microbes have eaten away all the glue holding the cortex together and have started on the pectin cement around the fibre bundles. If only the outer layers are eaten, the inner strands will still be stuck together, resulting in hard and coarse yarns.

It is not until the cement between each individual strand is eaten that flax will be suitable for making fine yarns, but if the microbes continue eating after this point, they will, in effect, be eating the table-cloth and so ruin the fibres. Retting is the most crucial point in the production of linen yarns and the best yarns come from the countries with the best natural facilities for retting.

The river LYS near COURTRAI in Belgium used to produce very well-retted fibres. The bundles of flax were packed vertically in large wooden crates 41 lined with straw and these crates were anchored in the stream and weighted with stones so that they would stay submerged just under the water surface.

Fermentation begins after a few days, depending on the temperature and the quality of the flax, the process could take between 10 and 20 days. The bundles were constantly examined and tested until they were ready to be removed from the crates and set up in sheaves to dry.

It was thought that the water of the river Lys had special qualities beneficial for making good, light-coloured fibres but the river became polluted by the process and retting in the river Lys is no longer permitted. Retting in stagnant water takes slightly less time than in running water and was the method usual In Ireland and most of Russia. LINT HOLES or DAMS 42 are cut near a stream, they may be from 6’ to 12’ wide up to 4’ deep and of any length.

The stream is chosen for its water, which should be soft and free from mineral content. Water from the stream is run into the dams when required. The bundles of flax are placed in one layer, slightly sloping to one side and the top is covered with rushes, straw or rough turves with stones on top. This method darkens the flax considerably even though the retted bundles are well rinsed before being taken out to dry.

The liquid cannot be run back into the stream for fear of harming the fish but it makes excellent liquid manure.

DEW RETTING is done in some parts of Russia, Lithuania and Germany. It consists simply of spreading the flax on a field and exposing it to the action of the weather for 6–8 weeks. A damp climate with lots of rain is really necessary for this method since the fermentation, which in this case is aided by mildew, ceases if the flax becomes dry. Dew retting produces dark-coloured flax of an inferior quality.

WARM WATER RETTING which was recommended by R.H. SCHENCH in 1847 was a step towards industrialisation of retting which was not, at first, considered very useful but it is the usual method now and the one by which the flax of the Courtrai district is processed today.

It is done by steeping closely packed flax bundles in covered vats at a temperature of 30°C. By this means, fermentation is accelerated and retting can be completed in 3 days. The method is usually repeated for producing the best fibres.

CHEMICAL RETTING is done by treating the flax straw with chemical solutions. Such reagents as caustic soda, sodium carbonate, soaps and dilute mineral acids have been fairly successfully employed.

Experiments are being carried out to improve methods of extracting fibres from green plants. Cottonization of flax is one form of chemical retting and this is carried to the point of separating the flax fibres into their component FIBRILS which can then be spun on cotton-spinning machinery. This process was begun during the last war. It makes it possible to use those parts of the flax fibres which formerly went to waste, and to mix other fibres with flax.

FLAX STRAW is dried after retting, both to stop the fermentation process and to make the waste matters brittle and easier to remove. After drying, the flax plants can be stored till a time convenient for the next step which is the breaking up of the now brittle central core into smaller pieces with a BREAKER or with a machine made from a series of fluted wooden rollers 44 which works on the same principle as a breaker 45.

SCUTCHING 46 is a process by which handfuls of flax were beaten with a broad wooden blade called a scutcher to detach the remaining woody matter and separate the short flax fibres into scutching TOW or CODILLA which can only be used for very coarse fabric or for upholstery stuffing. Scutching is the last process to be done by the grower before the flax is sold for further processing in a textile mill.

The process of spinning flax 47 into linen yarn is different from the processes used with other textile fibres. For handspinning a very thin layer of separated straight fibres are loosely wound onto a distaff 48 so that they are easily pulled out 49 and into the spin. Traditionally in an S direction because this is the way the fibres twist when they are drying.

Wetting 50 the fibres adds its own extra twist. It may be done by dipping the fingertips in water or by licking them as shown on a Vase from ORVIETO dated 490 to 480 BC. Wetting also makes use of the softened natural gum to smooth down the fibre ends and make the yarn rounder and glossier.

Present industrial methods 51 have been evolved from hand-spinning as a result of the experience of the generations of spinners used to dealing with flax.

The first spinning mill for flax was built at Darlington in 1787. In 1790, mills were built in Scotland, the first near Glamis. Factories for weaving linen fabrics on power looms 52 were not built until 1812, though cotton was woven industrially from 1785.

The first stage of making flax into yarn is HACKLING to separate the fibres into fine filaments. When this was done by hand 54 the bundle of flax was drawn, first one end and then the other, through a succession of fixed upright iron combs or hackles of different degrees of fineness, beginning with the coarsest. To start with, the fibres are anything up to 4’ long 55, though the average length is 18” to 24” which may be reduced to 12” to 15” by the end of hackling.

When machinery is used, the flax is held against hackles fixed on moving belts or bars or on the circumference of revolving cylinders. The products of hackling are called LINE and TOW. Line is the valuable long smooth straight fibres which are spun to the same principle as worsted wool.

The long linen fibres after hackling are soft and glossy and they vary in colour from the light yellowish buff of Belgian flax to the dark greenish grey of Russian flax. The difference in colour depends on the method used for retting, being light and warm in colour if retted in running water and dark and greyish if the retting was done in stagnant water.

Hackling is the first mechanical process to which the flag is subjected in the mill. When the fibres are cleaned and straightened, they are classified according to the class of yarn for which they are suitable.

Spreading transforms the line into a continuous ribbon or sliver by laying pieces to overlap each other on slowly moving leather straps by means of which the yarn is fed between rollers and then over pins. From the spreadboard, the sliver is passed through the DRAWING FRAMES 61 and at each step, the sliver is drawn out finer and finer 63 until, in the last of the series, called the ROVING FRAME 64, it is twisted into a loose thick thread (known as a rove).

The rove next passes into the hot water trough 65 of the spinning frame where the natural gum, the pectin, holding together the ultimate fibres is softened to allow the fibres to be extended and reduced to their required degree of fineness and finally the fibre, now a yarn, is spun onto bobbins. The subsequent drying 66 of the yarn hardens the natural gum up again and gives the yarn the firmness required to allow its subsequent handling in the manufacture of thread and fabric.

Flax makes better thread or fabric if it is kept damp during all the processes it has to undergo. This used to make the factories quite unhealthy places of work even though some of them may have looked very pleasant on the outside 67 68.

The TOW thrown off in the hackling is collected and carded or combed to be spun into yarns which can be used for fairly coarse fabrics only. It has a peculiar softness which makes it very suitable for towelling, being pleasant to the skin and an excellent absorber of moisture.

The chemical composition of flax is essentially cellulose but in its raw unbleached state, it is mixed with about 15% to 30% of foreign substances, mostly pectin or pectic acid. When boiled or bleached, flax is virtually pure cellulose and, like other pure cellulose fibres, flax in this state, has a high resistance to rotting. It can be attacked by mildews if kept in warm, damp surroundings but it is likely to keep in good condition if it is stored in a dry, cool place with no light.

Linen is hygrometric to about the same degree as cotton and contains, in normal conditions, about 3% of moisture. Sound linen fabric is 20% stronger wet than dry which helps it to withstand mechanical treatment in washing.

The tensile strength of linen is also good. It is stronger than most textile fibres but it does not stand up well to ageing when it is in combination with other fires. Linen lasts longer than silk when the two fires are woven together but it is destroyed by cotton or wool perhaps because of the different chemical compositions and different natural functions of their original purpose combined with their chemistry and the effects of ageing and pollution.

These observations may apply particularly to textiles kept in Britain because of the damp temperate climate.

Linen fabrics tend to crease because of their low elasticity. They stretch only very little but have enough elasticity to return to their original length when tension ceases.

Linen is resistant to heat and feels cool because it is also a good conductor of heat. The fibres begin to discolour at 120°C and decomposition starts. The result of sunlight on linen is to make it gradually lose strength. When linen fibres are on the verge of disintegration fibrillation occurs – the fibre falls apart into its component parts of ultimate fibres.

Cottonised flax is the name given to cotton-like fibres purposely made by the separation of flax into these ultimate fibres, which is spun with other fibres including man-made fibres make suitable lining fabrics for tapestries.

Linen fibres contract in damp conditions and shrinkage inevitably occurs so it may be that a proportion of man-made fibres would ease the precautions necessary when linen is used in conservation.

Seeds from the flax plant are used to make linseed oil and linoleum.

I will finish this lecture with the words of an old friend, Louisa Bellinger who worked for the Textile Museum in Washington for many years. She said:

“Too many of us have forgotten that the natural fibres were not designed by nature to be made into fabrics. Wool and silk, to be sure, were created to protect living creatures but linen and cotton had no such duties. Moreover, their function was not passive, but active in Nature’s scheme. Each was designed to perform some specific function and the man-made crafts of spinning and weaving may hinder, but do not entirely prohibit, vegetable fibres from performing those functions. We must remember that there is nothing stable or permanent about a woven fabric. If it were unravelled and the yarns unwound, the separate fibres would be at liberty, unchanged.

So, linen fibres held flax stems upright and carried moisture from the earth to the flower. Moisture can rise along the flax fibres by capillary attraction in the growing plant and the woven fabrics continue to carry water along its individual fibres”.