Linen – a short introduction to a long history

Linen is the oldest known fabric in the world. Strong, comfortable and produced sustainably, it is having a renaissance in the clothing industry.

When it comes to fabrics none are as enduring as linen. Made from flax, it is the world’s oldest known fabric and dates back over 36,000 years. The ancient Egyptians grew flax on the banks of the Nile and used the linen it produced for everything from clothing to currency and mummification. The fact much of it still survives gives some indication of the durability and strength that made it so useful. It was also associated with purity and spirituality for the Egyptians and civilisations beyond too. Druids and priests wore it, and even the Ark of the Covenant is said to have been wrapped in linen.  

It was the Romans who began cultivating linen in Europe and it’s been a constant in European history ever since, initially being worn as a smooth, comfortable underlayer beneath itchier woollen layers. In fact, it’s the root of the words ‘lining’ and ‘lingerie’. The centre of flax farming was northern Europe and by the 16th and 17th centuries, it was fundamental to European society, being used for everything from underwear to tapestries and ships’ sails. Indeed many of the great pieces of European art are painted on linen canvases.

During the industrial revolution however, linen was overtaken by cotton. Despite being far less durable than linen, cotton was cheaper to produce and at scale. In short, it was better for business. Unable to compete on these terms, Europe’s linen industry slid into decline.

Today linen is having a renaissance. People are looking for more sustainable fabrics and not only is linen far more durable than most cotton, but farming flax is less resource intensive too. No harmful chemicals are needed for its production and since all the flax plant can be used for various purposes, there is very little waste. It’s little wonder the Latin name for it – linen usitasimmum – translates as ‘most useful.

At Sunspel, we source only the highest quality linen from Northern Europe where farming and manufacturing techniques ensure the final garment is durable and has an extra soft broken-in feel. Today we offer a range of luxury linen products from shirts to suits. All have elegant, timeless designs and will be key wardrobe pieces for many years to come.