From Flax to Cloth: The Making of Linen

Photo by Andreas Fickl on

Linen fabric has been around for a long time.  In her book The Golden Thread: How Fabric Changed History, Kassia St. Clair delves deep into linen’s ancient life.  These facts stood out for me:

  • The production of linen involves several labor-intensive steps.  I wonder how the ancient peoples figured out the process.  It’s much more complicated than shearing a sheep and spinning wool.
  • The ancient Egyptians used hundreds of yards of linen for wrapping mummies, precious statues, and other valued items in the tombs, but they also wore linen clothes.  How did they produce so much cloth?
  • Without modern machinery, the ancient Egyptians wove cloth as fine as “200 x 500 threads to the square inch.” (p. 40) How did they spin and weave such fine thread?
  • Linen “is also one of the strongest fibers, twice as strong as cotton and four times as strong as wool.” (p. 44)

Here are the 8 steps for producing linen from flax:

  1. Planting.  Seeds are sown, usually in April. Flax crops deplete the soil so they can’t be continuously grown in the same field.
  2. Growing.  Seeds are placed close together to cut down on branching and to keep weeds away.
  3. Harvesting.  After about one hundred days, the plants are pulled up with the roots (the roots contain usable fibers) and spread out to dry.
  4. Rippling.  The upper parts of the flax bundles are pulled through coarse combs to remove the seeds.  Then the long inner fibers are separated from the straw and inner pith.
  5. Retting. The purpose of retting is to loosen and decompose the unwanted fibers.  Retting can be accomplished by exposing the flax to the elements out in a field.  Another method is to soak the flax in a pond or trough.  Ideally, the flax is immersed in running water, like a stream.
  6. Drying.  When the straw comes away from the fibers, the bundles are untied and laid out to dry in a field.  The crop is turned to maximize drying.  When thoroughly dry, it can be stacked inside to age.
  7. Scutching. Scutching works to remove the linen fiber from other unwanted plant material (“boon”).  A large wooden machine called a “brake” is used to get rid of the trash material.  Then the flax is beaten against a board with a blunt wooden knife.  This is called “scutching.”
  8. Hackling. The flax fibers are drawn through several metal combs for a final cleaning.  The resulting bundle of long fibers is called a “strick.”

When I learned about the labor-intensive process of preparing flax, I was amazed that anyone could discover that a durable, attractive type of cloth resided in that pretty, grassy plant.  Who was that person of ancient times?  Probably a woman.

Below are some resources if you’re interested in more information, photos, and videos about making linen from flax.

Traditional method of producing linen:

Watch the modern production of linen here:

The Karakesh Chronicles

Available from


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