SAINT AUGUSTINE – You have all seen the ad that claims that cotton is “the fabric of our lives.” If that is true, then linen must be the fabric of our history. It is hard to imagine that the same fiber that the Phoenicians made into sails for their ships was also used to create the finest lace in 16th century Europe, or that the ancient Egyptians were able to produce linen fabric-manually-of a fineness unequaled today. Stop reading for a moment and take that in.
Linen comes from the flax plant, whose Latin name translates to “most useful linen.” As you will see, no name could be more appropriate. In continuous use for 10,000 years, linen is the oldest fiber known to man. It is even included in the mythology of a number of cultures, including that of the Egyptians, who credited the goddess Isis with the gift of linen, and the northern Europeans who believed that the Teutonic earth-goddess Hilda taught mankind how to grow flax and process linen. Linen has been found among the remains of the Swiss lake dwellers of Neolithic times. Its use later spread as the Phoenicians, the great traders of the ancient world, sold it and bartered it. By the 10th century, linen weaving was the national industry of Flanders, and it continued to grow in popularity throughout Europe.
It was fine linen threads that were used to make the legendary European laces in the 16th century, although the conditions under which they were produced were appalling. Apart from the painstakingly slow rate of production itself,, lacemakers worked in damp basements (to keep fibers from drying out) with limited light. Often the light from a single candle was all that was allowed because the lace could be discolored from candle soot. It was during the Industrial Revolution that lace-making machines were introduced.
What conditions were cotton and linen grown? Could you just throw seeds out and hope they grew? Not hardly.