The fibers of flax are spun and woven into a fabric called linen. This is one of the most ancient industries known to man. Linen is often mentioned in the Bible and the ancient Egyptians wrapped their mummies in this fabric. It is said that the finest linen of the present day looks coarse beside that from the Egyptian looms in the days of the Pharoahs. The Hebrew and Egyptian priests wore garments made of this fine linen.
Flax grows from two to three feet high, and has a blue flower. A field of flax in blossom is very beautiful.
While it is grown extensively in many parts of Europe, Asia and America, the soil and climate of Ireland, France and the Netherlands are especially adapted to its growth, and it is in these countries that it reaches its greatest perfection.
The fiber of the bark is the part of the plant used in the manufacture of cloth. Linseed oil is expressed from the seed.
When the plant is ripe it is pulled up by the roots and beaten to loosen the seeds which are then shaken out. Next the stems are steeped in soft water and afterward allowed to ferment. They are then dried and passed between fluted rollers which breaks the woody part of the stems which are again beaten to remove this woody part from the fiber. The fiber is then made into bundles and sent to the mill to be spun, where it is first roughly sorted, the longest and best portions being separated from the short raveled ones. These inferior portions are called "tow."
Coarse and heavy yarns are spun dry, but fine yarn must be spun wet. Some varieties of velvet and velveteen are made from linen. Much of the so-called linen cloth of the present day is mixed with cotton or jute. The principles of weaving are the same as that of the cotton. See page 98.
For many centuries the weaving of linen was conducted as a household industry. The first attempt to manufacture it on a large scale was in England in 1253. It is now one of the national industries. Linen is bleached after it is woven. In the olden times it was spread upon the grass, or lawn, and the action of the sun, air and moisture whitened it, and for this reason it was called "lawn," and it is still so designated. In the modern process of bleaching, the linen is first singed by being passed rapidly over hot cylinders which makes the cloth smooth. It is then boiled in lime water, washed and afterwards scoured in a solution of sulphuric acid, exposed to the air for a time and again scoured. Lastly, it is boiled in soda-lye water and dried over hot tin rollers. The gloss on linen is made by first mangling, then starching, and finally running it between heavy rollers.
Linen is chiefly manufactured in France, Belgium, Germany, England and the United States. France is noted for the finest kinds of lawn and cambric, while Ireland excels in the production of table linen. The largest portion of the sheeting and toweling is made in Scotland. The linen manufactures of the United States consist principally of toweling and twine.