This section is from the "A Complete Dictionary of Dry Goods" book, by George S. Cole. Also available from Amazon: A complete dictionary of dry goods and history of silk, cotton, linen, wool and other fibrous substances,: Including a full explanation of the modern processes ... together with various useful tables.
Linen. Under this term are comprehended all yarns spun and fabrics woven from flax fiber. The cultivation and preparation of the fiber and its treatment till it reaches the condition ready for the loom, are dealt with under the head of Flax.
From the earleist periods of human history till the close of the 18th century, the manufacture of linen was one of the most extensive and widely disseminated domestic industries. The origin of its manufacture is traced back to times lost in the twilight of fable, far beyond the dark ages, and centuries before the Christian era. It was old in the time of Herodotus (50 B. C.) Long before the first author wrote his first book, the ancient Egyptians produced linen fabric far exceeding in fineness any cloths which at present is woven by the most improved mechanical inventions. This is clearly proven by the decorations and carvings of their temples, which display with startling accuracy the implements used in the cultivation of flax, the treatment at maturity, as well as the subsequent stages of spinning and weaving. Their mummy wrappings, too, show that with their crude machinery and simple appliances this ancient people wove the finest linen fabrics the world ever saw.* According to the best authorities the knowledge of flax and its manipulations came first from Egypt into Greece and Italy, and thence travelled westward to France and Flanders, next probably into Germany and England, before it got ground in the more northern and north-eastern parts of Europe, where it has since prospered very much. It is certain that the Germans used in very early times to dress and spin flax, and weave linen cloths; but whether it was they were jealous of their art, or whether, being a proud and warlike people, they were ashamed to have it known that they condescended to labor at the loom, cannot be determined; however, all this work was secretly done in vaults and caverns, the manufacturers being buried, as it were, under ground. In time the industry became largely developed in Russia, Austria, Germany, Holland, Belgium, the north of Ireland and throughout Scotland; and in these countries linen was the fabric most largely in use for clothing until the introduction of cotton. The invention of the spinning-frame by Arkwright, the spinning-jenny by Hargreaves, and the spinning-mule by Crompton in the latter part of the 18th century, benefitting as they did almost exclusively the spinning of cotton; and the immediate growth and development of cotton manufacture, largely due to these inventions, gave the linen trade, as it then existed, a fatal blow. Household spinning and hand-loom weaving immediately began to shrink. The trade which had supported whole villages and provinces entirely dissappeared, and the linen manufacture in crippled conditions, took refuge in special localities, especially in Ireland, where it has resisted with varying fortunes the continued assaults of cotton. Innumerable linen fabrics of fine designs and costly quality, once in great esteem and extensive use, are now unknown; or in cases remembered it is solely by their cotton substitutes.
In the United States the linen manufacture has never taken root and grown as compared with other textile industries. It is true prior to the Civil War the spinning and weaving of linen as a farm-industry was practiced to a considerable extent, but even that has now become extinct. The decline and downfall of the industry is attributed to the change from the household manufacture to that of the central factory; to the increasing use of cotton in the war period; to the tariff revisions of 1872, and latterly, to the fact that encouragement has not been given to farmers for the raising of a fine flax fiber. Another reason for the failure of the linen industry to develop in the United States, is the fact that no machinery has yet been found for superseding hand labor in the cultivation of the plant, and it is only the cheap labor of the old countries which enables them to excel in this field. Flax is the most difficult and stubborn of all textile fibers to work, and as to improving the processes of manufacture after the flax is pulled, the number of inventions that have been tried and found wanting in Ireland, Belgium, Germany and other old flax countries, is only equalled by the patent car-couplers invented by ingenious Americans. Scarcely a month passes in Ireland and England in which some invention is not brought out destined to "revolutionize" the linen trade. But it is found that no trade resists revolution like linen manufacturing. Owing to the stiffness and length of the flax fibers, a great part of the machinery used for cotton is not available for linen, nor can linen be worked with such rapidity as in the case of cotton. The two largest factories in the United States for the manufacture of crash are the Stevens Linen Works, at Methuen, Mass., and the Minneapolis Linen Mills, at Minneapolis, Minn. The former import their linen yarn from Europe, while the latter use only pure American flax fiber. These mills manufacture only low-grade linens. It is said there is no linen cloth manufactured in the United States of either imported or home-grown flax, exceeding in price 15 cents per yard. Bleaching of linen is generally understood to mean the process of whitening or decolorizing the cloth. Until about the year 1800, the successful issue of this process depended upon the natural bleaching agencies present in the atmosphere and the sun's rays. The usual plan was to spread out the cloth on a grassy field called a "bleaching green," and to continue sprinkling it with water several times a day. After being thus exposed for from five to six months to the action of the air, light and moisture, the cloth was rendered white. The process was tedious and occupied much valuable land for the best part of the year, and for this reason large quantities of brown linens were sent from Ireland, England and France to Holland for the purpose of bleaching. A particular kind of heavy linen which was regularly sent to Holland to be bleached received on that account the name of Hollands; and another variety which from its fineness was spread on the smoother grass fields or lawns, received the title of lawn. On account of the time consumed by the open-air process of bleaching, many other plans have from time to time been proposed and patented, but the method now adopted to hasten the bleaching of linen is the use of chlorine [See Bleaching]. By the use of this chemical substance the time required for whitening linen has been reduced from all summer to about five weeks. An attractive and novel sight in the vicinity of Belfast, Ireland, is the numerous bleaching greens, with their acres of linen webs undergoing the final part of the bleaching process, where nature plays her part after the laboratory's labors. Sun and air are absolutely necessary to perfect flax bleaching; chemicals cannot accomplish all, nor will all climates do the work as well as the humid climate of Ireland. It is a well-known fact that the linens bleached along the banks of the river Dan in North of Ireland are whiter and softer than the products of other countries, and all extremely fine and sheer linens are sent to these bleacheries to be whitened. Whether this superiority is due to some chemical combination contained in the waters of this river, or in the heavy dews which fall on its banks, or in the comparative evenness of climate that prevails throughout the seasons, with their frequent exchanges of light and. shade and alternate rain and sunshine, which make it a chosen spot for the purpose of bleaching, is not certainly known. Vast quantities of brown linens are annually shipped into
Ireland from France, England, Russia, Germany and Belgium to be bleached and returned. During the old days when bleaching was accomplished entirely "upon the grass " the period of purification, as has already been stated, required all summer; but there was no tendered linens in those days, and the cloth seemed to have everlasting wear. Every bleachery now has its professional overseer. He must know the laws of chemical action as far as they govern the ingredients he employs in his hastening methods - and all these to the point of precision, else his boilings may develop serious damage and consequent loss to his employers whether bleaching for themselves or others; for all who follow bleaching as a business are responsible to those who consign brown cloth to their hands. Mistakes of blundering bleachers are frequently the occasions of "job-lot " offerings of tendered linens for which Belfast has a celebrity at times. Bleaching proper requires about three weeks, then about two weeks for finishing.
Ammonia is a good test as to the completeness and success of bleached linen. Well bleached linen is not in the least discolored by it, but linen which is white but not thoroughly freed from pectic matters becomes yellowish in ammonia. Such linen will become yellow if kept in stock for any length of time.
To ascertain if there is a mixture of jute in a linen fabric, put a little solution of chloride of lime into a saucer, and lay in it for four or five minutes the thread or sample of cloth to be examined; then squeeze out the solution and put the fabric into a solution of ordinary hydrochlorate acid, and, after a few moments, take out and wash in plenty of water. Then apply a drop of ammonia to the fabric, and in case there is a mixture of jute, a slightly violet-red color is immediately imparted. Flax and hemp become slightly brown. The red coloration, however, does not remain long, and the proportion of jute mixture can only be roughly shown.
To distinguish linen from cotton, dip the sample or samples in a boiling solution of caustic potassa, and let it remain a few minutes. The the linen will assume a dark yellow, while the cotton will be a light yellow, or nearly white.
To distinguish linen from wool, dip the sample or samples in a boiling solution of caustic soda (8 deg. B). Let it remain for two hours at a steady-boil and all the wool will be dissolved, leaving the linen unchanged. Silk is dissolved by cold nitric acid which does not affect wool.
To distinguish thin linen from thin cotton cloth, moisten the tip end of a finger and apply it to the cloth. If it be linen the moisture will be absorbed quickly; if cotton, it will come through more slowly.
The fineness of linen is determined by the relative length of yarn in a given weight, and also by the number of warp-threads contained in a certain space of the reed in weaving, to which the weft threads in a similar space must bear a fixed and regular proportion. In judging linen of whatever fineness and price, particular attention should be paid to the evenness of the threads, and also to the fineness and closeness of the texture. The color should be perfectly white, and the finish glossy; but this gloss should be principally if not wholly the effect of the calender employed in finishing the cloth. Many inferior fabrics are rendered marketable by a large proportion of starch, from which they not only receive a fine gloss, but also a factitious hardness, or body, as it is termed - qualities which disappear after the first washing; and the cloth having lost in this ordeal all its vellum-like consistency, becomes, to use a familiar expression, "as poor as a rag." Hardness and smoothness, therefore, can never be safely depended upon as a criterion; the eye must be rather closely applied to discern whether these qualities actually proceed from the strength and fineness of the fabric. The threads must not only be even, but must have a certain wire-like roundness and be free from fuzz. Linen fabrics have several advan-tages over cotton, resulting principally from the structure and longer lengths of the flax fiber. The cloth is much smoother and more lustrous than cotton cloth, and has a less "wooly" surface; so that it does not sod as easily as the more spongy cotton. Bleached linen, starched and dressed possesses that unequalled purity, gloss and smoothness which make it alone the material for shirt fronts, collars, etc., and the gossamer delicacy yet strength of the thread it may be spun into, fits it for the fine lace-making to which it is devoted. Flax is a heavier material than cotton, but weight for weight it is much stronger, single threads having proportionate strength in the ratio of 3 to 1 3/4 , and cloth 3 to 2. Medical authorities assert that linen fabrics form a superior material for underwear, for the reason that linen does not clog the pores, but admits of free exhalation. In case of contagious skin eruptions the contagious elements are held in the material of woolen garments, and are therefore likely to be spread and re-inoculated in the skin. Also that woolen underclothing is quite likely to become loaded with effete matters from the perspiration and cast-off epidermis, each alike irritating to the skin and injurious to the lungs. [See Flannel, Crofting, Calendering, Flax, Fibers, Holland, Crash, Lawn, Bleaching]