The great majority of textiles that have come down to us from dynastic Egypt and earlier are made of linen. Linen was also very widely used throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and Western Asia. However, Egypt is unusual in the continued dominance of linen there, long after wool had become the primary textile fibre in other areas, beginning from around 2000 BC.
Linen fibre derives from a plant, Linum usitatissimum L., which as a raw material is more usually known by the term flax. Flax was cultivated by the Egyptians in fields. To grow well, flax as a crop needs water and a rich soil and frequent weeding.
|Seeds from Badari (UC 10059, Badarian Period, about 4000 BC) and seed capsules from Lahun (UC 28270iv, perhaps late Middle Kingdom, about 1800 BC). Note that the seeds from Badari are crushed, suggesting that linseed oil had been extracted from them. They are about 3mm long, whereas the seeds from the later Lahun capsules are about 5mm long, presumably the effect of domestication.|
Another important product from the flax plant is linseed, from which linseed oil is produced, but when flax was being grown primarily for its fibre it was not allowed to become mature, with fully developed seeds.
|Depiction of harvest of flax in the Book of the Dead, from a linen mummy bandage (UC 32434, Ptolemaic Period, 305-30 BC): in such scenes the height of the plant may be exaggerated for the religious context.|
Flax, which in ancient Egypt appears to have grown to about waist height, according to depictions, was harvested by pulling from the ground, often when still green.
Afterwards it was probably soaked in water, in principle the same process that is known in the modern industry as "retting". However, in ancient Egypt the retting (the breakdown by enzymes of the pectin and other substances which hold the cells of the plant together) was only allowed to progress to a limited extent.
|A hank of flax strips, from Lahun (UC 7509, late Middle Kingdom, about 1800 BC). The individual strips are mostly about 1mm wide, and contain about 7 distinct bundles of fibres lying side by side. The Lahun hanks represent the initial stage of yarn preparation, very rarely preserved in the archaeological record.|
The fibres that are used for textile production are the long "bast" fibres that lie between the skin of the flax stalk and its woody core. The Egyptians, rather than processing the fibres as a loose mass, the method used in later periods when retting was much more thorough-going, harvested the fibres as strips of parallel fibres still in their original alignment. We are not absolutely sure how this was carried out, but by looking at the traditional processing of other bast fibres in the present-day Far East, we can deduce that bast fibres together with the plant's skin or epidermis, were first peeled from the woody core, and the skin afterwards stripped away from the fibres. Strips, which should have measured a maximum of about 15mm if harvested in one piece, were then split down according to the fineness of the thread or yarn desired.
The method of making yarn can be described by the modern term "splicing and twisting".
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