The history of linen: from its origin to its French culture
Where does linen come from? Has its textile use always been attested? When was the plant introduced in the West ? How was flax cultivation established in Flanders, Brittany and Picardy? The fashion for linen under the reign of the Sun King and its decline in the 19th century.
Where does linen come from?
Flax is the oldest fiber in the world! Fragments found in Georgia date back to 36,000 BC and already attest to its textile use. Flax then developed in the Nile Valley during Antiquity. The Egyptians mastered its cultivation and the plant became an important part of the economy. The Pharaohs gave it a deific origin. Linen was used for adornment, but also in the ritual of mummification.
Introduction of linen in the West
In 1700 BC, linen arrived in Europe via the Phoenicians. These great navigators established a real trade in the fiber. They produced linen in Egypt and exported it to Greece, Rome, England, Spain... Its western culture is attested in 100 BC by the Gauls: Julius Caesar discovered the fabric, worn by the druids, and immediately appreciated it for its beauty and quality.
A real culture was established in Flanders, Brittany and Picardy
It is under the impulse of Charlemagne, ordering it in his law books, that the culture of flax was really established in our regions. As early as the 12th century, cities such as Cambrai or Reims obtained a remarkable visibility and reputation in the field of linen weaving. It is indeed a Cambrian weaver, Baptiste, who invented a new weaving process, offering a much finer linen fabric. His success was flourishing. Note also that the city of Bruges was the world linen capital for more than 3 centuries.
The Sun King and the linen fashion
Louis XIV, a great patron of the arts and a lover of novelties, made linen a real fashion. In addition to the numerous linen tapestries that decorated his castles. The sovereign wore linen as a shirt and pants. His entire court was also dressed in linen. The terms "linges" and "lingerie" come from the reign of the Sun King. In the 18th century, the cultivation of linen reached its peak: more than 300,000 hectares were dedicated to its cultivation.
The decline and revival of linen cultivation in Europe
Due to the industrialization of cotton and the increase in the cost of labor, the cultivation of linen weakened throughout the 19th century. In spite of the evolution of the processes of harvesting of the plant and manufacture of the fabric, the arrival of synthetic textiles in the 20th century did not stop the decline of flax.
What about the current production? Is linen still grown in France? Massively? And in which region? See our article on Flax, a 100% French crop? to know everything about flax in France.