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Linen is a textile made from the fibres of the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum. Linen is laborious to manufacture, but the fibre is very absorbent and garments made of linen are valued for their exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather.
Many products are made of linen: aprons, bags, towels (swimming, bath, beach, body and wash towels), napkins, bed linens, tablecloths, runners, chair covers, and men's and women's wear.
The word linen is of West Germanic origin and cognate to the Latin name for the flax plant, linum, and the earlier Greek λινόν (linón). This word history has given rise to a number of other terms in English, most notably line, from the use of a linen (flax) thread to determine a straight line.
Textiles in a linen weave texture, even when made of cotton, hemp and other non-flax fibres, are also loosely referred to as "linen". Such fabrics generally also have their own specific names, for example fine cotton yarn in a linen-style weave is called Madapolam.
The collective term "linens" is still often used generically to describe a class of woven or knitted bed, bath, table and kitchen textiles traditionally made of linen. In the past, "linens" also referred to lightweight undergarments such as shirts, chemises, waistshirts, lingerie (a word also cognate with linen), and detachable shirt collars and cuffs, all of which were historically made almost exclusively out of linen. The inner layer of fine composite cloth garments (as for example jackets) was traditionally made of linen, hence the word lining.
Linen textiles appear to be some of the oldest in the world: their history goes back many thousands of years. Fragments of straw, seeds, fibres, yarns, and various types of fabrics dating to about 8000 BC have been found in Swiss lake dwellings. Dyed flax fibres found in a prehistoric cave in Georgia suggest the use of woven linen fabrics from wild flax may date back even earlier to 36,000 BP.
Linen was sometimes used as currency in ancient Egypt. Egyptian mummies were wrapped in linen as a symbol of light and purity, and as a display of wealth. Some of these fabrics, woven from hand-spun yarns, were very fine for their day, but are coarse compared to modern linen. Today, linen is usually an expensive textile produced in relatively small quantities. It has a long "staple" (individual fibre length) relative to cotton and other natural fibres.
The word linen is derived from the Latin for the flax plant, which is linum, and the earlier Greek λίνον (linon). This word history has given rise to a number of other terms:
In addition, the term in English, flaxen-haired, denoting a very light, bright blonde, comes from a comparison to the colour of raw flax fibre.
In ancient Mesopotamia, flax was domesticated and linen was first produced. It was used mainly by the wealthier class of the society, including priests. The Sumerian poem of the courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi (Tammuz), translated by Samuel Noah Kramer and Diane Wolkstein and published in 1983, mentions flax and linen. It opens with briefly listing the steps of preparing linen from flax, in a form of questions and answers between Inanna and her brother Utu. In ancient Egypt, linen was used for mummification and for burial shrouds. It was also worn as clothing on a daily basis; white linen was worn because of the extreme heat.
Linen fabric has been used for table coverings, bed coverings and clothing for centuries. The significant cost of linen derives not only from the difficulty of working with the thread, but also because the flax plant itself requires a great deal of attention. In addition flax thread is not elastic, and therefore it is difficult to weave without breaking threads. Thus linen is considerably more expensive to manufacture than cotton.
There is a long history of the production of linen in Ireland. The Living Linen Project was set up in 1995 as an oral archive of the knowledge of the Irish linen industry, which was at that time still available within a nucleus of people who formerly worked in the industry in Ulster.
The discovery of dyed flax fibres in a cave in Georgia dated to thirty-six thousand years ago suggests that ancient people used wild flax fibres to create linen-like fabrics from an early date.
The use of linen for priestly vestments was not confined to the Israelites; Plutarch wrote that the priests of Isis also wore linen because of its purity.
In December 2006, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 2009 to be the International Year of Natural Fibres in order to raise people's awareness of linen and other natural fibres.
In the Belfast Library there is the mummy of "Kaboolie,' the daughter of a priest of Ammon, who died 2,500 years ago. The linen on this mummy is also in a perfect state of preservation. When the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened, the linen curtains were found to be intact.
Earliest linen industry
The earliest records of an established linen industry are 4,000 years old, from Egypt. The earliest written documentation of a linen industry comes from the Linear B tablets of Pylos, Greece, where linen is depicted as an ideogram.
The Phoenicians, who, with their merchant fleet, opened up new channels of commerce to the peoples of the Mediterranean, and developed the tin mines of Cornwall, introduced flax growing and the making of linen into Ireland before the Common Era. It is not until the twelfth century that we can find records of a definite attempt to systematize flax production.
When the Edict of Nantes was revoked, in 1685, many of the Huguenots who fled France settled in the British Isles, and amongst them was Louis Crommelin, who was born and brought up as a weaver of fine linen, in the town of Cambrai. He fled to Ulster, and eventually settled down in the small town of Lisburn, about ten miles from Belfast. Belfast itself is perhaps the most famous linen producing centre throughout history; during the Victorian era the majority of the world's linen was produced in the city which gained it the name Linenopolis.
Although the linen industry was already established in Ulster, Louis Crommelin found scope for improvement in weaving, and his efforts were so successful that he was appointed by the Government to develop the industry over a much wider range than the small confines of Lisburn and its surroundings. The direct result of his good work was the establishment, under statute, of the Board of Trustees of the Linen Manufacturers of Ireland in the year 1711.
The cross-section of the linen fibre is made up of irregular polygonal shapes which contribute to the coarse texture of the fabric.
Linen fabrics have a high natural lustre; their natural colour ranges between shades of ivory, ecru, tan, or grey. Pure white linen is created by heavy bleaching. Linen fabric typically varies somewhat in thickness and is crisp and textured, but it can in some cases feel stiff and rough, and in other cases feel soft and smooth. When properly prepared, linen fabric has the ability to absorb and lose water rapidly. Linen can absorb a fair amount of moisture without feeling unpleasantly damp to the skin, unlike cotton.
Linen is a very durable, strong fabric, and one of the few that are stronger wet than dry. The fibres do not stretch, and are resistant to damage from abrasion. However, because linen fibres have a very low elasticity, the fabric eventually breaks if it is folded and ironed at the same place repeatedly over time.
Mildew, perspiration, and bleach can also damage the fabric, but it is resistant to moths and carpet beetles. Linen is relatively easy to take care of, since it resists dirt and stains, has no lint or pilling tendency, and can be dry-cleaned, machine-washed or steamed. It can withstand high temperatures, and has only moderate initial shrinkage.
Linen should not be dried too much by tumble drying, and it is much easier to iron when damp. Linen wrinkles very easily, and thus some more formal garments require ironing often, in order to maintain perfect smoothness. Nevertheless, the tendency to wrinkle is often considered part of linen's particular "charm", and many modern linen garments are designed to be air-dried on a good clothes hanger and worn without the necessity of ironing.
A characteristic often associated with linen yarn is the presence of "slubs", or small knots which occur randomly along its length. In the past, slubs were traditionally considered to be defects, and were associated with low quality linen. However in the case of many present-day linen fabrics, particularly in the decorative furnishing industry, slubs are considered as part of the aesthetic appeal of an expensive natural product. In addition, slubs do not compromise the integrity of the fabric, and therefore they are not viewed as a defect. However, the very finest linen has very consistent diameter threads, with no slubs at all.
The quality of the finished linen product is often dependent upon growing conditions and harvesting techniques. To generate the longest possible fibres, flax is either hand-harvested by pulling up the entire plant or stalks are cut very close to the root. After harvesting, the plants are dried, and the seeds are removed through a mechanized process called “rippling” (threshing) and winnowing.
The fibres must then be loosened from the stalk. This is achieved through retting. This is a process which uses bacteria to decompose the pectin that binds the fibres together. Natural retting methods take place in tanks and pools, or directly in the fields. There are also chemical retting methods; these are faster, but are typically more harmful to the environment and to the fibres themselves.
After retting, the stalks are ready for scutching, which takes place between August and December. Scutching removes the woody portion of the stalks by crushing them between two metal rollers, so that the parts of the stalk can be separated. The fibres are removed and the other parts such as linseed, shive, and tow are set aside for other uses. Next the fibres are heckled: the short fibres are separated with heckling combs by 'combing' them away, to leave behind only the long, soft flax fibres.
After the fibres have been separated and processed, they are typically spun into yarns and woven or knit into linen textiles. These textiles can then be bleached, dyed, printed on, or finished with a number of treatments or coatings.
An alternate production method is known as “cottonizing” which is quicker and requires less equipment. The flax stalks are processed using traditional cotton machinery; however, the finished fibres often lose the characteristic linen look.
Linen uses range from bed and bath fabrics (tablecloths, dish towels, bed sheets, etc.), home and commercial furnishing items (wallpaper/wall coverings, upholstery, window treatments, etc.), apparel items (suits, dresses, skirts, shirts, etc.), to industrial products (luggage, canvases, sewing thread, etc.). It was once the preferred yarn for handsewing the uppers of moccasin-style shoes (loafers), but its use has been replaced by synthetics.
A linen handkerchief, pressed and folded to display the corners, was a standard decoration of a well-dressed man's suit during most of the first part of the 20th century.
Currently researchers are working on a cotton/flax blend to create new yarns which will improve the feel of denim during hot and humid weather.
Linen fabric is one of the preferred traditional supports for oil painting. In the United States cotton is popularly used instead as linen is many times more expensive there, restricting its use to professional painters. In Europe however, linen is usually the only fabric support available in art shops; in the UK both are freely available with cotton being cheaper. Linen is preferred to cotton for its strength, durability and archival integrity.
Linen is also used extensively by artisan bakers. Known as a couche, the flax cloth is used to hold the dough into shape while in the final rise, just before baking. The couche is heavily dusted with flour which is rubbed into the pores of the fabric. Then the shaped dough is placed on the couche. The floured couche makes a "non stick" surface to hold the dough. Then ridges are formed in the couche to keep the dough from spreading.
In the past, linen was also used for books (the only surviving example of which is the Liber Linteus). Due to its strength, in the Middle Ages linen was used for shields and gambeson (among other roles such as use for a bowstring), much as in classical antiquity it was used to make a type of body armour, referred to as a linothorax. Also because of its strength when wet, Irish linen is a very popular wrap of pool/billiard cues, due to its absorption of sweat from hands. Paper made of linen can be very strong and crisp, which is why the United States and many other countries print their currency on paper that is made from 25% linen and 75% cotton.
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