Medieval cloth: linen

Linen was Europe’s native plant fiber. FLax grew in every region; it’s a field grass with little blue flowers.

Flax seeds are edible and very nutritious, but Europe’s chief interest was in the fibers running along the inside of each long stem. The fibers were stronger than cotton, but they were not easy to work with. In the first step, the stems were soaked and the fibers separated. Bacteria helped to rot the plant material attached to the linen fibers. After this soaking and “retting” process, the fibers must be detached from other plant material by feeding it through rollers or smashing and bending it in a hand-held tool.

Some of the flax fibers are inferior and were used as tow to make rope. The valuable fibers were very soft and fine, and each was as long as the plant stem had been cut. When they had been combed, they could be spun into thread. Linen weaving could be coarse or very fine.

Since linen fibers were so strong, it was among the most durable fabric. It was used for hardest everyday use: towels, undershirts, chemises, sheets, tablecloths and napkins. White linen tended to bleach out stains in the sun.

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