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Ancient Egyptian Linen

Egypt holds the first rank in the production of Linen, both from the antiquity and extent of the trade, and naturally takes the first place, after Bible Linen, in an account of this ancient manufacture. The Egyptians early excelled in the art, and they were justly celebrated for the superiority of their Linens more than four thousand years ago. The Flax plant, matured by the fertilizing slime annually spread over the country by the Nile, grew there in perfection. Pliny mentions three sorts of Flax which were grown in Egypt. He gives the first place to Abeston or Abestinem, (i.e.) incombustible Flax; the second to Byssus, which was of very fine and small fibre; and the third to the common Flax. He says that Byssus was extremely fine and dear, and none but rich and wealthy persons could afford to wear it, and also that it often received a purple dye, and served as an ornament to the ladies.

The various processes employed in the preparation of the plant in Egypt are admirably depicted on the enduring walls of their ancient palaces, temples, and tombs, by the skilful hand of the artist. Drawings of the various implements employed; of the people in the act of sowing the seed; pulling the plant; carrying water to fill wooden vats, evidently for the purpose of steeping the Flax; putting it through the several processes requisite to produce the fiber; spinning it into yarn; and weaving the yarn into cloth, are all distinctly portrayed The several operations are delineated with a minuteness of detail and a beauty of coloring truly astonishing. Thanks to the dry pure air of that celebrated country, many of the sketches look as bright and fresh as if they had only yesterday got the last finishing touches from the artist, instead of having been painted from 2000 to 3000, and, in some instances, even 4000 years ago.

In Egypt, Flax is sown at the present time about the middle of November, in the plains which have been inundated by the Nile, and it is pulled in about 110 days. It is generally in the boll in February, and pulled in March. There is little change in the climate of that country since the earliest records, and it is therefore probable that seed time and harvest is the same now as it was in the days of the first of the Pharaons. The cultivation of the plant, the pulling and steeping, were all carried on very much as at present, and not very different from the mode practiced in this country.

The scutching process appears to have been done by beating the straw with a mallet to break it and loosen the fiber, and then by driving off the shive with a knife, comb, or other instrument. After being scutched it was combed or heckled, to break open or split up the fibers and to remove the loose fibers or tow, after which it was ready for spinning. This was done by the distaff and spindle, nearly in the same way as was practiced in this country not a century ago.

The looms for weaving the yarn into cloth were of a comparatively rude construction, and not well adapted for producing a uniformly fine texture, but the industry and skill of the Egyptians overcame all difficulties, and enabled them to weave even the finest qualities, both of plain and figured fabrics, on their simple looms. Sir J Gk Wilkinson, in his popular account of the ancient Egyptians, minutely describes many of the processes connected with the growth and manufacture of Flax, and gives numerous drawings of several of the operations, copied from the drawings in the tombs and temples of that famous land.

At Beni Hassan, the mode of cultivating the plant in the square beds, still met with throughout Egypt, the process of beating the stalk and making them into ropes, and the manufacture of a piece of cloth, are distinctly delineated. It is, however, possible, that the part of the picture in which men are represented pouring water from earthen pots, may refer to the process of steeping the stalks of the plant after they were cut, the square pieces would then indicate the different pits in which the stalks were immersed, containing some less, some more, water, according to the quantity of Flax and the state in which the process then happened to be. This is rendered the more probable by the flight of steps for ascending to the top of the raised sides of the pits, which would not have been introduced if the level ground were intended.

Jnumhopet Tumb, Beni-Hassam
Beni Hassam >

In the grottos of Eileithyias, the gathering of the Flax is represented in one of the bas-reliefs, and Costaz says the Flax is recognized by its length, which does not rise above the hips of the workmen, by the green color of the stalk, and by the round yellow color of the grain. Four men and a woman are employed in pulling it, another man binds it into sheaves, using his left foot to press the sheaf tight, and another carries it to one whose business is to get out the seed. This man stands under a tree with a comb the stock of which rests on the ground, and it is kept steady by the feet of the workman. He takes a handful of Flax and pulls it through the teeth of the comb, which detaches the bolls without injuring the stalk. Rosselina gives a representation from a tomb at Kom-el Ahmar, in which the men are pulling the Flax with the hand, after which it is tied in bundles and carried off the field on the back of asses.

Harvest Kom El Ahmar, Egypt
Harvest, Kom el Ahmar

The steeping and the subsequent process of beating the stalks with mallets shown on the walls of the tombs, illustrates the following passage of Pliny upon the same subject:—" The stalks themselves are immersed in water, warmed by the heat of the sun, and are kept down by weights placed upon them; for nothing is lighter than Flax. The membrane or rind, becoming loose, is a sign of their being sufficiently macerated. They are then taken out and repeatedly turned over in the sun until perfectly dried, and afterwards beaten by mallets on stone slabs. That which is nearest the rind is called tow, inferior to the inner fibers, and fit only for the wicks of lamps. It is combed out with iron hooks, until all the rind is removed. The inner part is of a whiter and finer quality. Men are not ashamed to pre-pare it. . . . After it is made up into yarn it is polished by striking it frequently on a hard stone, moistened with water. When woven into cloth it is again beaten with clubs, being always improved in proportion as it is beaten." The Egyptians also parted and cleansed the fibers of the Flax with a sort of comb, probably answering to the iron hooks mentioned by Pliny. Two of these, found with some tow at Thebes, are preserved in the Berlin Museum, the one having twenty-nine and the other forty-six teeth. This comb was used instead of the heckle of the present day, for the purpose of removing the tow or loose fibers of the Flax, and also for breaking or splitting up the fiber to adapt it for being spun into finer sizes of yarn. The Egyptian yarn seems all to have been spun with the hand, and the spindle is invariably seen in the pictures representing the manufacture of the cloth.

Spinning, as in Scotland before the introduction of spinning by power, was chiefly the occupation of women, and Wilkinson mentions that “wife” is nearly related to “woof,” weaving," and” web." Men were also employed at the spindle and the loom, though not, as Herodotus would seem to imply, to the exclusion of women, who, he pretends, undertook the duties of men in other countries " by going to the market, and engaging in business, while the men, shut up in the house, worked at the loom." Men to this day are employed in making cloth in Egypt as well as in Scotland and other countries, but it cannot be said that they have relinquished their habits for those of the women.

The paintings executed by the Egyptians themselves represent both men and women manufacturing cloth In the hieroglyphics above the representations of the persons employed with the spindle, the word sakt, which in Coptic signifies to "twist," constantly occurs. The spindles were generally small, being about fifteen inches in length, and were made of various sorts of material, such as wood, cane split, wicker work, etc, and of a variety of forms or shapes. Several spindles found at Thebes are now in the museums of Europe, and one of them had some of the Linen thread with it when found. In order to increase the impetus in turning, the circular head was occasionally of gypsum or composition. Some were formed of light plaited work, made of rushes or palm leaves, stained of various colors, and furnished with a loop of the same material, for securing the twine after it was wound. The mode of spinning very much resembled that anciently practiced in Scotland, which will be more particularly described in the chapter on Flax-spinning. The historian Herodotus mentions that other nations made cloth by pushing the woof or weft upwards, while the Egyptians on the contrary push it down. This is confirmed by most of the paintings which represent the process of manufacturing cloth. At Thebes, however, a man, who is engaged in making a piece of cloth with a colored border or selvage, appears to push the weft upwards, the cloth being fixed above him to the upper part of the frame. The Egyptian loom somewhat resembles the hand-loom in common use in Scotland, but the weft was put in by the hand, with a long wooden needle, split at each end to carry the weft, and not thrown through by a shuttle, as in the old system of hand-loom weaving here. Fart of a needle of bronze of a later date was found at Berenice. They had also the horizontal loom which occurs in the paintings at Beni-Hassan and other places. At El Bershek, the mode of taking up the increasing length of the cloth by pegs in the ground, as still practiced in Ethiopia, is shown. There is also shown at same place the manner in which the women wound off threads from numerous balls placed within a alight framework, the fineness of the threads being indicated by the number taken to form one twist From the representations of Egyptian looms which occur in the tombs at Thebes, it might be supposed that they would have been totally incapable of producing the fine Linen so much admired by the ancients. The paintings in which they occur were executed at a very early period, and improvements may have taken place in their construction in alter times It was not, however, necessary that this should be the case, as it is well known that oriental nations, by very simple appliances, are in the habit of executing the most delicate and intricate fabrics in so perfect a manner, that Europeans with the most complicated looms, and the newest improvements in mechanism, cannot surpass them. It is therefore very probable that their far-famed fine Linen, mentioned in Scripture and by ancient writers, was produced from looms of the same construction as those represented in the paintings of Thebes and Eileithyias, and these are of a very rude and primitive description. The process of smoothing or calendering the cloth is also represented in the paintings. This appears to have been done by means of wooden rods passed to and fro over the surface. From the appearance of some of the fine Linen found in the tombs, it may be conjectured that much greater pressure was sometimes used for this purpose, and such as could only be applied by a press. or cylinder of metal.

For smoothing Linen a wooden substitute for what is called an iron in this country was also used, some of which have been found at Thebes, six inches in length, and made of tamarisk wood. This chiefly belonged to the washerwomen, who had also a wooden instrument for goeffreying fine Linen, by which the waving lines were made, which are frequently seen in the dresses of the kings and priests. Pliny mentions four qualities of Linen, particularly noted in Egypt—the Tanitic, the Pelusiac, the Butine, and the Tentyritic. He also states that the immense quantity of Flax cultivated in Egypt was accounted for by their exporting Linen to Arabia and India, and that the quality of the Linen produced by Egyptian looms was far superior to any other.

Egyptian Horizontal Loom
Horizontal Loom ( Tomb of Chnem-hotep)

The quantity of Linen manufactured and used in Egypt in ancient times was very great. Independently of what was made up into articles of dress, the numerous wrappers required for enveloping the mummies, both of men and animals, show how large a supply must have been kept ready for the constant home demand. In addition to this a very large quantity was regularly exported to foreign markets, where it was in great request, and eagerly purchased by all who could afford to do so. Not only was the fine Linen and broidered work highly appreciated by other nations, but Linen yarn was also bought by them. It is related in the Bible that Solomon brought Linen yarn out of Egypt, and there is no doubt he was not the only foreign buyer of this much prized and really valuable production.

When the Israelites left Egypt it is known that they were intimately acquainted with the art, not only of making fine Linen, but also of embroidery, and they were not long in putting their knowledge to a practical use in making hangings for the tabernacle and robes for the priests. Flax in the scutched or dressed state formed also a consider-able branch of Egyptian trade, much of it being purchased by merchants from Carthage and other countries. In the weaving, and in all the processes connected with the manufacture of fine Linen, the Egyptians have not been surpassed in modern times. Their Linens were composed of different qualities and fabrics, all of which had a world wide celebrity, and the more civilized the people the more highly were they appreciated. What the rich silks of France, or the beautiful lace of Belgium is to us in the present day, the fine Linen and broidered work of Egypt was among contemporary nations! and the more luxurious their habits the more were these articles valued and used. The manufacture of Linen in Egypt in very early times formed one of the principal branches of industry to the inhabitants, very many of whom were engaged in its production. The city of Thebes was early celebrated for its Linens, and it is very probable, from the immense quantity which must have been made, that there may have existed distinct establishments for its manufacture in various parts of the kingdom, of a kindred nature to the hand-loom weaving shops not yet extinct in this country. It is, however, certain that it was made extensively in the households of many of the inhabitants, very much as it was in Scotland at a not very distant period. As already mentioned, the yarn was spun and the cloth woven chiefly by the women, and it was weaved plain, embroidered or figured, white or dyed, as required.

Weavers, Tomb of Nefer-ronpet

Weavers, Thebes, about 1200 BC

>Of the products of the Egyptian loom in remote times little more is known than what the mummy pits have disclosed to us, and it would be as unreasonable to look through modern sepulchres for specimens and proofs of the state of manufacturing art in the present day, as to deduce an opinion of the skill of the Egyptians from those fragments of cloth which envelope their dead, and have come down almost unchanged to the present age. The curious and costly fabrics which adorned the living, and were the pride of the industry and the skill of Thebes, have probably all perished ages ago. Some idea may be formed of the vast accumulation of Linen in the mummy pits and sepulchres of Egypt, when it is mentioned that it was a speculation at one time in Europe whether it should not be collected for the purpose of making paper. Some of the Linen produced in Egypt was of a very common or inferior quality, the yarn being coarse and unequally spun, and the reed or set thin and open. Specimens of such cloth are frequently met with upon the mummies which have been exhumed. On opening up a mummy it is found that the body is wrapped round with many folds of Linen cloth. The poorer people were encased in Linen of common quality, ranging from 30 to 40 porter. The yarn forming this cloth is frequently ill spun, but other specimens of it are level and regularly spun, and though woven through a thin reed the cloth looks well. This proves that there were good and bad spinners in Egypt, even in the days when it was celebrated for its fine Linen, as there still are in this advanced age The great mass of the mummy cloth employed in bandages and coverings, whether of birds, animals, or the human species, for many animals and all human bodies were embalmed, is of a coarse texture. The folds which are next the body, and which are generally found impregnated with resinous or bituminous matter, are the coarsest, the upper bandages nearer the surface being finer. Sometimes the whole is enveloped in a coarse and thick covering, very like some of the sacking of the present day, and sometimes it is in coarse and open cloth like what is now used in cheese presses, for which it might easily be mistaken. In the College of Surgeons various specimens of these cloths may be seen, some of which are very curious. In some instances as many as seven different qualities of cloth, varying from fine muslin to coarse sail-cloth, have been found on one mummy. The priests, and the wealthy and noble classes, were encased in Linen of a very different texture from that used for the mass of the people, many of the specimens being remarkably fine, and well deserving the name of "fine Linen of Egypt." Some of it is stout and well woven, and made of excellently spun yarn, quite equal to the productions of the present day. The kings and queens, especially those of the earlier dynasties, some of whom have been discovered, were embalmed in a most costly manner, and the Linen employed for wrapping round them was of the very finest texture, beautiful alike in the quality of the yarn and in the fabric of the cloth.

Some specimens have been found so fine that the very finest productions of the looms in modern times will scarcely compare with them. The very finest cambric or lawn of the present day looks coarse beside these specimens of the Egyptian looms in the days of the early Pharaohs. Indeed, so fine and so beautiful are they, that it is wonderful how the yarn could have been produced, or a fine enough reed formed for weaving them through. The beauty of the texture and peculiarity in the structure of a mummy cloth found by Belzoni are very striking. It is free from gum, or resin, or impregnation of any kind, and has evidently been originally white. The yarn of both warp and weft is remarkably even and well spun, and the cloth is close and firm, yet very elastic. The thread of the warp is double, consisting of two fine threads twisted together, but the weft is single. The warp contains 90 threads in an inch (about 80 porter or 16?°), the woof or weft only 44, being barely half as many. The fineness of the threads, estimated according to the count of cotton yam is about 30 hanks in the pound. It would appear that the disparity between the warp and weft of Egyptian cloth was a system of their manufacture, as it is found in almost every specimen of it which has been examined. Sometimes the warp counts twice as many threads in an inch as the weft, sometimes three times, and not seldom four times the number. Cloth containing 80 threads of warp in an inch had 40 of weft, others with 120 threads in the warp had 40 in the weft, and others with the same number of threads in the warp had only 30 in the weft or woof. This system, so different from modern cloth, which has the proportions nearly equal, originated probably in the difficulty and tediousness of putting in the weft when the shuttle was thrown by hand, as is still the practice in this country with some very coarse fabrics, or by the still more tedious process already mentioned. Basil Montague, in his "Thoughts on Laughter," states the case of a party against whom an action was brought in the Court of Common Pleas, in 1821, for infringing a patent, defending himself in the following remarkable manner. The question was asked whether the plaintiff's mode of weaving canvas was new or not A witness for the defendant was called, who stated that so far from the plaintiff's manner of doubling the thread being new, he could state with certainty that it had been known and practised for upwards of 2000 years. The Court was incredulous and even jocular at his knowledge of the ancient mode of thread-making, and the Chief Justice, quoting the adage, " when Adam delved and Eve span," asked him if he could favour them with some information as to the method of spinning practised by our general mother. But the witness, nothing daunted, produced a specimen of cloth taken from the cerement of an Egyptian mummy, and proved to the satisfaction of the whole court that the yarn of which it was made, had been spun and twisted exactly in the manner described in the plaintiff's patent Some of the bandages which have been unwound from mummies bear indisputable evidence of having been mended or darned; seams occur in others. Old napkins, shirts, and other articles of clothing, and domestic furniture, are often found, and in one an armlet hole was found with the seams around it very neatly sewn. This proves that the old and worn Linen in the house had sometimes been given to the embalmers for bandages for the bodies, but it may only have been done by very thrifty housewives. Doubtless there were people in those days, as there still are, who would be quite content to permit, it may be the body of a distant relative, to be entombed at the least possible expense consistent with public decorum. In one case a perfect vest was discovered on a mummy, but generally the bandages are of new Linen taken from the webs. The quantity of Linen required for bandages for mummies must have been immense. Some of those unrolled have been found to weigh from 20 to 30 and 40 lbs., and to measure upwards of 300 yards in length. The Linen taken from one mummy, including the outer sheet, weighed 29 lbs., and the total length of the pieces was 292 yards. In some as many as 40 thicknesses of cloth have been found, the inner bandages being composed of various widths and lengths. The breadth varies from a few inches to two or three feet, and the length from two or three yards, up to six, eight, or nine yards. The many soils of draperies painted in Egyptian tombs help to elucidate the nature of the material employed in encasing the bodies of the ancient inhabitants, and supply information from which inferences can be drawn which may be received with tolerable certainty regarding its texture These exhibit a large variety of qualities, colours, and patterns. Some sorts are of various degrees of thickness, and, GO far as can be judged from paintings, of rich and delicate workmanship, while others furnish patterns and styles not unworthy of imitation in the present age, and of a brilliancy of colouring which can scarcely yet be rivalled. Some qualities again are so fine and transparent, that every detail of the figure which they envelope is seen with perfect clearness through them, as through very thin muslin or gauze. So great was the tenuity with which Linen was occasionally made in Egypt that some of the specimens obtained the appellation of " woven air/' and certainly the praise was not unmerited. Sometimes Linen bandages are found on mummies with writing upon them, showing that the Egyptians were acquainted with a mode of writing on cloth. Herodotus, who lived 460 years before Christ, finely describes the process of embalming, and the various materials used in the operation. Very large quantities of Linen cloth were used for this purpose, as the body was enveloped from head to foot in many folds, generally taken off a web or piece of cloth, of various degrees of fineness, depending on the wealth of deceased, or of the surviving relatives. He says that Linen was the ordinary dress of the ancient Egyptians, over which was sometimes worn a woollen cloak or shawl, with fringes. The king wore a kilt, apron, or skirt, fastened round the loins and reaching below the knees,something akin to the Highland kilt of the present day, over which was a shirt of remarkably fine texture. The queen wore a light skirt, with a full shirt over it of very fine Linen. The nobles and upper ranks wore the kilt, and on some occasions the shirt over it, the texture of which was not so fine as that worn by the king. The lower classes wore only a coarse kilt without any other covering above it In like manner the upper ranks of women occasionally wore the shirt over the light skirt, but the lower classes of females invariably wore the skirt alone. This kilt and shirt were always of Linen. Both Celsius and Forster quote passages from ancient authors which concur to show the abundance and excellence of the Flax grown anciently in Lower Egypt, and more particularly in the vicinity of Felusium, the general employment of it among the inhabitants for clothing, and the exclusive use of Linen cloth for the garments of the priesthood and other sacred purposes, and especially for the worship of Isis and Osiris. The same authorities mention that Egyptian Flax, and the cloth woven from it, were shipped in great quantities to all parts of the Mediterranean.

Source: Alex J. Warden, Linen Trade, 1864

Further reading:

Richards, Janet. Society And Death In Ancient Egypt. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge UP, 2005.
Ancient Egyptian and Greek Looms, H. Ling Roth, 1913

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