linen, fabric or yarn made from the fiber of flax, probably the first vegetable fiber known to people. Linens more than 3,500 years old have been recovered from Egyptian tombs. Phoenician traders marketed linen in Mediterranean ports. Worn by Egyptian, Greek, and Jewish priests as a symbol of purity, it also typified luxury as in the phrase “purple and fine linen.” Flax was cultivated by the Romans and introduced by them into N Europe. The production of linen was encouraged by Charlemagne, and linen became the principal European textile of the Middle Ages. Flanders has been renowned from the 11th cent. for its creamy flax and fine thread. French Huguenots excelled in working flax and carried the art abroad, notably to Ireland, where Louis Crommelin established (c.1699) a manufactory at Lisburn, near Belfast. Ireland is still the largest producer of fine linen, with Belgium, Japan, and Russia producing somewhat lesser amounts. The first flax-spinning mill was opened in England in 1787, but only in 1812 was linen successfully woven with power looms. The industry suffered in relation to cotton because many textile inventions were not applicable to linen, the inelasticity of the fiber causing it to break readily under tension. Although linen exceeds cotton in coolness, luster, strength, and length of fiber, the expense of production limits its use. After the flax fiber is removed from the stems, it is delivered to the mills, where it is hackled to separate and straighten the fibers, overlapped on a spreadboard to form a continuous ribbon, drawn out through rollers, then wound from the roving frame on bobbins in a loosely twisted thread. For fine goods the thread is usually spun wet. Linen may be bleached in the yarn or in the piece. It is woven into fabrics ranging from heavy canvas to sheer handkerchief linen.

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