Threads That Bind: Linen

Anne Henninger, 1st Maryland Regiment

The origins of the cultivation of flax and the waving of linen are lost in pre-history, but evidence places these fibers among the oldest textiles known to man. The production of linen reached a high stage of perfection 6,000 years ago.

Archeological evidence, based on wall paintings illustrating spinning and weaving, suggests linen was woven in Egypt as early as 4,000 BCE Mummies of pharaohs and nobles of the Egyptian court were wrapped in linen much finer than any woven today, with thread counts as high as 540 threads to the inch. Some of the linen cloth found in Egyptian tombs is sixty inches wide and over six feet long.

"Linen fish nets and the earliest surviving linen textiles in Europe were used by the neolithic Swiss Lake Dwellers of the Stone Age at sites dated about 2940 BCE Among the artifacts found at these sites have been bundles of flax, spun linen yarn, and fragments of linen fabric." 1

Numerous references to linen are found in the Bible and surviving "Greek and Roman records also show that linen was of profound economic importance."2 Phoenician traders were responsible for carrying linen to other parts of the world. By the 14th century the process of making linen, which was eventually carried to the American colonies, was already in place.

Flax, from which linen is made, is considered a bast or stem fiber. The fiber is inside the length of the stem (this is also true of hemp, the processing of which is not addressed here). Flax seed was planted in the early spring; about two acres of flax per year was needed to produce cloth and clothing for each household. The seed was sowed thickly so that the plant grew tall and thin. In mid-May it produced flowers and, later, seed bolls. If the plant was destined to be used for fiber it was pulled, root and all, before it was mature, normally in July. The flax was bundled and allowed to wilt and dry. The dry flax was pulled through a ripple to remove seeds and leaves. At this point the process to remove the fiber from the bark - retting - began. This was accomplished in one of several ways:

  • The bundles of flax could be left on the ground. The dew moistened the stems which, over four to six weeks, would rot. This method of retting was common in Russia and produced a coarse, dark flax.3
  • The bundles could be placed in flowing water. "Stream retting produced the best quality linen and took from five to fifteen days of immersion in slow flowing water."4
  • Pool retting was the quickest and most commonly used in American, as the fermentation was speeded up by the more numerous bacteria in the stagnant water.5

After retting, the flax was dried and raked to remove the bark. It was then scutched (or swiggled) to remove the remaining bark and shortened fibers. These short, broken fibers were known as tow; tow was used to manufacture cordage or coarse textiles and also for tinder and to clean rifles. At this point the flax was hackled to comb out the tangled fibers.. Again, the shorter, broken fibers, of an off-white to gray color, were designated as tow. The longer flax fibers, a pale yellow or ecru, were called "line." The line was twisted into pear-shaped forms called "sticks." The sticks, in turn, were tied together in groups of twelve. Each stick was then draped on the distaff for spinning and was spun wet.

The processed flax was "dressed onto a distaff in a fine web, allowing the spinner to draw strands of the fibers into a uniform, continuous yarn."6 The thread was spun on a Saxony or Low Irish Wheel. The spinner used a niddy noddy or clock wheel to remove the thread from the bobbin and wind into skeins.

After the thread was prepared, it was woven into cloth. Coons and Koob described the process:

Weaving involves interlacing lengthwise yarns called the warp with the weft, or crosswise yarns. Warping, or setting up the stationary warp threads on the warp beams of the loom, was complicated because of the danger of tangling or breaking the threads. In order to keep the threads in order and the tension even, a weaver transferred the yarn between a series of tools and finally to the warp beam. First, a skein of was placed on a swift, from which it was wound onto spools using a spool winder. The spools were then arranged on a rack called a creel. Gathering a few threads together at a time, and carefully unwinding them from the spools, the weaver wound the threads onto a warping reel or bards to a predetermined length. The yarns were then transferred under tension to the loom's warp beam. In this process, the weaver achieved the correct width and density for the desired fabric.

Compared to warping, preparing the weft was a simple process. The spool winder doubled as a quill winder. Quills wound with yarn were placed onto the shuttles which would carry the weft back and forth as the weaver created the cloth.

Handlooms used in early New England differed little from those which had become common in Europe during the middle ages. Each loom had at least two harnesses, through which the warp threads were passed. By stepping upon the treadles connected to the harnesses, the weaver lifted them up and down, creating a passage in the warp for the shuttle. The shuttle was thrown from side to side by hand. After each passage of the shuttle, the weft was driven into the cloth by means of a beater..

To create a length of striped ticking, a plaid kerchief, or a colorful patterned coverlet, a weaver wove together dyed and natural or bleached linen yarns. To weave plain weaves and stripes, a weaver needed a simple, two-harness loom, while four to sixteen harnesses were required for more elaborate patterns. 7

Within the household, plain weave on a two-harness loom produced cloth suitable for shifts and shirts as well as stripes, checks, and plaids. More decorative weaves, such as M's and O's, overshot, and huck-a-buck, were woven on a four-harness loom and used for towels and tablecloths.

The linen thread or the woven cloth was either bleached or dyed. Linen did not take dye well and was more often bleached. If it was to be dyed, strong dyes such as indigo, madder, walnut hulls or tree bark were used.

Unless the linen was destined to be dyed or used brown, it had to be bleached. This process took about a month. In 1765 John Wily wrote A Treatise on the Propagation of Sheep, the Manufacture of Wool, and the Cultivation and Manufacture of Flax in which he described the bleaching process:

  1. Soak linen 36 to 40 hours in warm water, rinse and dry.
  2. Soak in lye and cow dung 48 hours.
  3. Stretch cloth over the grass in a bleach-yard.
  4. Wash off the cow dung.
  5. Beat cloth with "bat staffs" 2 to 3 hours.
  6. Place cloth into boiling lye; soak 24 hours.
  7. Wash cloth; stretch it over the bleach-green 24 hours.
  8. Beat with bat staffs.
  9. Repeat the last three steps for 8 to 10 days.
  10. Place cloth in buttermilk for 1 or 2 nights.
  11. Wash and beat the cloth again, then stretch it over the bleach-green.
  12. Sour it again in buttermilk.
  13. Repeat the process for another week, until the cloth is white enough.8

During the latter part of the 1760s the Irish invented a bleach of chlorine in lime, which shorted and simplified the above process a great deal!

Initially the linen industry in Colonial America, centered in New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies, was a cottage industry; families made linen for their own use. Over time, the process became more specialized with different individuals or units responsible for the different phases of production. As early as 1640, the Massachusetts General Court directed each town to identify individuals knowledgeable in the production of linen. Sixteen years later the colony required spinning be taught to boys and girls; each was required to produce "three pounds of linen, cotton or woolen yarn each week for thirty weeks of the year."9 Despite their productivity, large quantities of linen was imported, via England, from Holland, France, Silesia, and Saxony. Montgomery lists some of these imports, among which were:

  • Linen Cloth;
  • Canvas;
  • Damask;
  • Diaper;
  • Lawns;
  • Flanders Holland Cloth;
  • Brown Holland;
  • Irish Cloth;
  • Drilling;
  • Kinsters;
  • Twill, and
  • Oznaburgs.10

In examining probate records from Cumberland County, PA, for the period 1750-1800, Tandy and Charles Hersh determined flax production grew rapidly during the last half of the eighteenth century, although they estimated "only one of every three households produced flax or wool."11 The majority of the inventories they examined listed tow flax and about 1/3 reported "spun flax," or yard.12 Linen accounted for 58% of the unused fabric found in households. Locally produced linen included various grades of linen as well as tow, shirting, checked, stamped, and striped cloth. Linen imported from other areas included cambric, Holland, Irish, Russia Sheeting, and Oznaburg.

Other linen fabrics were not always available but were sometimes offered in the stores: birdseye, canvas, crocus, diaper...and toweling. Most of these were likely to have been imported and brought from Philadelphia or Baltimore to local stores.13

In Cumberland County, more linen was found in household textile inventories than any other fiber. Traditionally, it was used for men's and women's clothing as well as for bedding and bed furniture, tablecloths, and towels. Tow and coarsely spun linen was used for wagon covers and bags.

In many instances a linen warp was combined with a cotton weft, producing the fabric known today as fustian. (Jean cloth in the 18th century was a twilled fustian.) The extent to which this was done depended on the availability and cost of cotton. Fustian was first imported to Massachusetts in 1629 and continued in use throughout the Colonial period.

The physical characteristics of the flax plant determined the usefulness of linen. Linen is smooth and does not attract lint; this is a result of the length of the flax fibers, which range from six to forty inches in length. It is a strong textile. Again, this is a result of the length of the fibers but also because they are "cylindrical, straight, and solid."14 This shape also tends to make linen somewhat inelastic in nature. Because the flax fiber is hollow, it absorbs moisture easily. It is soft, and becomes softer the more it is laundered. All of these factors combined to make linen a necessary and popular textile during the 18th century. The production of linen peaked in the first decade of the 19th century after which time it was overtaken by cotton in popularity and use.

Sources & Notes:

  1. Jerde, Judith. Encyclopedia of Textiles. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1992, p. 119.
  2. Ibid, p. 119
  3. Daniels, Wanda. Brigade of the American Revolution, Quartermaster Department, Textile Reports. 1988, p. 9
  4. Ibid, p. 9
  5. Ibid, p. 9
  6. Coons, Martha and Katherine Koob. All Sorts of Good Sufficient Cloth: Linen Making in New England 1640-1860. North Andover: Merrimack Valley Textile Museum, 1980, p. 50.
  7. Ibid, pp. 58-60
  8. Wily, John. A Treatise on the propagation of Sheep, the Manufacture of Wool, and the Cultivation and Manufacture of Flax. Williamsburg, VA, 1765. Quoted in Coons and Koob, p. 62
  9. Coons and Koob, p. 6
  10. Montgomery, Florence M. Textiles in America 1650-1870. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1984, pp. 277-278
  11. Hersh, Tandy and Charles. Cloth and Costume 1750 to 1800. Carlisle: Cumberland County Historical Society, 1995, p. 17
  12. Ibid, p. 21
  13. Ibid, p. 72
  14. Daniels, p. 11

Other Sources:
Cooper, Grace Rogers. The Copp Family Textiles. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1971.

Liles, Dale. The Thread's Tale: The Price is in the Process. Presented at Gadsby's Costume Symposium, 03 Oct 98.

Copyright © 2006 Anne Henninger. All rights reserved.