Linen or flax is the fiber obtained from the layer of bast cells just inside the outer bark of the plant Linum usitatissimum, or flax. The fiber is firmly attached to the woody tissue in which it lies, and it is necessary to break off the outer bark and to destroy the woody tissue in order to obtain it pure.
Although flax is more difficult to obtain from the plant than cotton, once separated from the stem the fibers are much more easily spun by hand methods, and it was probably the first vegetable fiber used for spinning. Just when or where linen was first used we cannot tell, but historians seem to agree that Egypt probably first discovered the value of this material. Flax is indigenous to the Nile Valley, and the earliest picture writings of Egypt show the linen industry in quite a high state of development. The Bible (Genesis 41: 42) tells us that Pharaoh arrayed Joseph in vestures of fine linen, and more than once mentions flax in Egypt. This was about 1715 B.C. These references are to "fine linen," which shows that the industry must have been carried on for a long time, since coarse linens would be the first produced.
Mummy cloths, four thousand years old, show linen quite fine in quality. Probably very little clothing of any other material was used in Egypt until after the Christian era. For hundreds of years the Phoenicians carried linen cloth from the Nile valley to all parts of the ancient western country. It was frequently taken to Tyre to be dyed and then traded. Purple and fine linen were" symbols of royalty in the time of Solomon, and, because of its cleanliness, linen was and still is used in connection with all religious rites.
From Egypt linen culture spread to Babylon, to Greece, and to Rome. Great encouragement was given to it in Italy, and guilds were later formed to regulate and protect the linen trade. The Moors kept up the industry in Spain, and from the seventh century France and Germany were producing their own flax. Great Britain and Ireland may have borrowed the industry from the Romans. All over Europe during the Middle Ages, and until the invention of power spinning, linen was used almost entirely where we use cotton today. Although, since the industrial revolution, cotton has re-placed linen for many purposes, because of the strength, luster, smoothness, snowy whiteness, and characteristic leathery texture of linen, cotton can never be as valuable, or replace it for table service and many other uses.
At the present time the linen industry flourishes, although it is not to be compared with the cotton industry. Large amounts of flax are grown in Ireland, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Russia, France, and in parts of the United States and Canada.
Good flax fiber, when separated from the stalk, should be from twelve to twenty inches in length, and will vary greatly in fineness. It is very strong, but has little elasticity. Under the microscope the fiber appears straight, with longitudinal markings and, at intervals, cross markings or nodes which look almost like breaks in the fiber, and which assist somewhat in spinning, since they tend to hold the fibers together. In cross section the fiber is polygonal and has a small central canal. The fiber is composed of cells consisting of almost pure cellulose, held together by a vegetable gum or pectin, which also gives it color. This structure makes it very different from cotton, which is a single cell. The color varies from yellowish-white to brown and from pearl to steel gray, the best quality of flax being pale yellowish-white. The variation in color is due quite largely to differences in the processes of retting.
Luster is one of the most prized assets of linen and is retained as long as the fiber lasts. It may be affected by retting, as may the strength of the fiber. Linen does not absorb a great amount of water into the fiber, 6 to 8 per cent being an average amount, although it may reach 20 per cent; neither has it a great affinity for dyestuffs or metallic salts. A certain amount of vegetable oil is present and aids in the spinning processes. Probably the failure of some chemical methods of retting is due to the fact that too much oil has been removed from the fiber. Bleaching removes this oil and also some of the vegetable waxes and gums present; therefore unbleached linen is usually stronger than bleached.
Again, because of this combination of cells, linen may not be bleached rapidly, as cotton is, by the action of hot alkalies. The fiber is disintegrated by these. Acids do not act so rapidly on linen as on cotton, since the gums protect the cellulose and make the action slower.
The affinity for dyestuffs is not so great in linen as in cotton, again probably due to the resins uniting the cells of the fiber. Otherwise, being almost pure cellulose, it is chemically similar to cotton, especially after being bleached.
Linen is a better conductor of heat than cotton; therefore it feels cool to the touch.