The history of textiles production spans cultures and millenia. From the silkworms of ancient China to the cotton bolls of pre-Incan Peru, art and artifacts from prehistoric sites across the globe hint at the stories of early man’s first clever triumphs over nature. Radiocarbon dating of trace textile fibers found at prehistoric sites range from four to as many as thirty-four thousand years before present! But the oldest textile of them all—and the only one to inspire papal edicts and elaborate Roman courtroom antics—is linen.
Linen is woven from the spun fibers of the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum. Flax grows wild in the region extending from Northern Africa to India and north to the Caucasus Mountains in Western Europe. Long before we lounged on sunny yacht decks on gauzy linen towels, prehistoric man was busy spinning these exceptionally-strong fibers into the simple thread that changed the world.
At an upper-Paleolithic excavation site at Dzudzuana Cave in the eastern-European country of Georgia, archaeologists discovered flax fibers that were preserved inside pollen chambers for 34,000 years. To date, they are the oldest evidence of manmade textiles ever discovered. The fibers at Dzudzuana showed evidence of having been knotted and dyed bright colors like turquoise and pink, consistent with the style of other artefacts left behind by our expressive ancestors.
Fast forward a few thousand years of evolution and innovation and we find, at an ancient site in eastern Turkey, a piece of 9,000 year-old, simply-woven linen cloth clinging to a bone tool—presumably once wrapped around the handle for a better grip. Archaeologist and ancient textile expert Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood supposes this rudimentary fabric was produced on a crude loom of only four sticks, and woven in a manner derived from the already well-established practice of basket-weaving.
There are two varieties of flax fibers: shorter tow fibers used for coarser fabrics and line fibers used for finer fabrics. Flax fibers can be identified by their typical “nodes” which add to the flexibility and texture of the fabric. The cross section of the fiber is made up of irregular polygonal shapes which contribute to the coarse texture of the fabric. It can range from stiff and rough to soft and smooth.
A simple piece of linen fiber or cloth might seem like rather un-exciting discoveries in the face of glittery riches from pharaohs’ tombs, but in fact they offer unparalleled insight into the evolution of the tools of early man.
Imagine yourself a caveman (or cavewoman) in prehistoric times. You live in a loosely-associated hunter-gatherer society, and venture out of your dark cave every morning in search of your daily sustenance. Just think how many more nuts and berries (or slabs of meat) you could carry if only you had a bag to keep them in instead of just your fists. Imagine the lightbulb light up: Oh, I could carry all these berries home if I wrap them up in my mammoth pelt, tie it shut and sling it over my shoulder! With enough food for the whole week, I’ll have all this free time to sit around and tame those wild dogs and invent the wheel!
Intentional cultivation of the wild flax plant likely began sometime between 5,000-4,000 BCE in the regions of North Africa and the Fertile Crescent, and from the beginning, linen was holy.
In ancient Mesopotamian city-states like Babylon and Ur, linen fabric was rare and accounted for only 10% of textile production. While the flax plant is not difficult to grow and reaches maturity in about 100 days, it also leaches most of the nutrients from the soil such that the fields must be let lie fallow for several years after a harvest. The laborious process of linen-making then took an additional 130-150 work days. Because production was so labor-intensive, only members of the elite like priests and royal figures could afford clothing and other articles made of linen. Cuneiform sources tell of thrones and statues of deities draped in bolts of fine linen inside temples.
Unlike the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians prized linen fabric for much more than its exclusiveness. Linen fabric is durable, lightweight and wicks moisture away from sweaty skin. Linen thus became the favored material for clothing under the scorching desert sun, from the coarse linen garb of the slaves to the intricately-woven finery of the high priests.>p Linen is also resistant to insects and microbial growth, and has a smooth, lint-free surface. Egyptians were obsessed with hygiene, so for these qualities, linen was considered pure. The whiter the fabric, the purer Egyptians believed it to be. By far, the greatest demand for linen was for ritual purposes.
Priests were permitted to dress only in linen. “Chief Royal Bleacher” was an actual job title, though an unenviable one. Tomb paintings and models from across the region depict the repetitive process of washing the wet linen cloth, rubbing it with detergent, pounding it on a smooth stone with wooden clubs, rubbing the surface with balls of leather, rinsing, repeating, again and again; then finally laying it out to bleach dry in the hot sun.