Sunday, 22 May 2016

Linen in early history

From time immemorial linen has been regarded as the perfect background for embroidery. It it linked to the economies of great civilisations and has symbolic significance in the rituals of many religions.

The country which supplied the entire ancient world with linen was Egypt. Here animal fibres such as wool were considered unclean and liable to breed pests.


Accordingly priests whilst in the temple were only allowed to wear linen garments. Linen was almost exclusively used to wrap the embalmed bodies of the dead.

Israelites adopted similar views and Moses was instructed "neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woollen come unto thee" (Leviticus 19, verse 19)


The tabernacle curtains were of linen and Aaron's holy garments were linen with pomegranate motifs and bells of gold (Exodus 26, verse 31-36. Exodus 28, verse 34)
Solomon established a royal monopoly in Egyptian linen yarn which he sold to his merchants (1st Kings 10, verse 28)

Perhaps one of the most interesting references to embroidery in the Bible occurs in Ezekiel where the prophet referring to Phoenician sailors of Tyre wrote "Fine linen with embroidered work from Egypt was that which thou spreadest forth to be thy sail" (Ezekiel 27, verse 7).

It is known that Phoenicians traded wood for linen articles, cedar logs being floated down the coast from Tyre and Sidon to Egypt.


Very few examples of purely Egyptian embroidery now exist as after the birth of Christ Greek colonists in Egypt influenced the textile art of Egypt.


Quantities of textiles have been found in Egyptian burial grounds with designs both woven and embroidered depicting Greek gods. Hercules wrestling with monsters, Perseus cutting off the Gorgon's head, Vulcan forging armour and other scenes from Greek mythology. Some of these can be seen at the Victoria and Albert museum.


Many great writers of the classical world make references to linen.


Homer notes that during the siege of Troy Helen embroidered scenes of battles on a great cloth of purple and Hector's wife embroidered "flowers of varied hue".

Greek mythology tells how Philomena had her tongue cut out t stop her complaining so she embroidered an account of her woes and sent it to her sister.


Flax in bloom is a beautiful sight, a sea of soft green and capped in blue. A farmer in ancient times had to toil hard to cultivate his crop: endless weeding and a harvest that has to be pulled not reaped. He was left with soil that could not support another flax crop for seven years. Yet the resulting fibres when removed from the stem produce a cloth which has no equal for embroiderers and has stood the test of time.

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Images of Egyptian embroidery copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, London.