Linen fragment embroidered in silk, 12th Century
Museum of Islamic Art



  • Usually made from flax, sometimes nettles or hemp
  • Takes lots of work to prepare
  • Probably the first fiber ever spun

  • Flax

  • Looks like hay or straw
  • Fibers come from the stalk, not the fruit, unlike cotton
  • Plant is 3-4 ft. high, with blue flowers that produce sesame-like linseeds, which can be processed into oil or consumed as a source of fiber
  • Harvested by being pulled from the ground, not cut, so longer fibers are available

Preparation of Fiber

  • Rhetting: separates fiber from stalk
    • Dew or field rhetting: stalks are laid on ground until exterior rots off, up to a month
    • Stream or pond rhetting: stalks are tied underwater, exterior rinses away in 10-14 days (can pollute water supply, is costly)
  • Breaking: stalks are beaten with a wooden mallet or chopped on a flax break, which gets rid of any remaining woody material. They are then scraped with a scratching blade until the outside falls off
  • Hackling: the fibers are then drawn through a hackle, which looks like a bed of nails, two or three times. Draws are usually made through consecutively smaller-spaced hackles
  • The final product looks like human hair, with pond-rhetted blonde, dew-rhetted gray


  • Flax fibers naturally tend to curl in a counter-clockwise direction, so they are usually spun counter-clockwise
  • Flax fibers are very long - they don't need to be drafted, and don't require much twist
  • Must be kept wet while spun, to help the fiber stick to itself. Usually the spinner either licks the fiber itself, or wets their fingers in water
  • Ancient Egyptians used top whorl spindles for flax, with the spinner rolling the splindle along their thigh
  • Western Europeans used spindles without whorls, supported by the fingers, which made their linen thread capable of being very fine.


  • Linen cloth, both flax and hemp, is stiff, rough, and durable, and was used for sail canvas as well as clothing.
  • Hemp was also used for rope.
  • The softening of linen cloth requires a lot of effort, which made, and still makes it, rather expensive. However, linen also softens a lot with wear, which made it usable for the lower class, who could still buy, or make it without softening.
  • Tow, or loose fiber, was used for padding and mattresses.


  • McGann, Kate. "Spinning Straw into Gold." Markland. 10 July 2007. http://www.markland.org/flax.php
  • Newman, Paul B. Daily Life in the Middle Ages. Jefferson: McFarland, 2001.