The flax plant, or linum usitatissimum, is a key plant for the fine arts: linen rags to produce paper, linen canvas for paintings, and linseed oil as a medium for oil paints.
Flax was one of the first plants to be cultivated and easily adapts to different climates. (Archaeologists have recently found dyed wild flax fibers in Georgia that are about 34,000 years old. Here is NYT link.) Russia is now the largest producer of flax. Other countries with favorable cool climates where flax grows well are Belgium (known for the finest linen and artists’ canvas), France, the Netherlands, and Ireland. But, Egypt and Italy also produce linen and have for thousands of years. Turin’s Egyptian Museum has many beautifully preserved lengths of linen as well as the linen wraps of mummies.
The longest Etruscan text, the Liber Linteus Zagrabensis, is also the only example of an ancient linen codex. It dates to 250 BC and although Etruscan has not been deciphered, it seems the book is a liturgical calendar. It’s thought that it was made near Chiusi, in Etruria, and from there somehow traveled to Egypt. It survived as mummy wrappings and has been reconstructed to its original form, an accordion folded codex. Both the codex and the mummy are in Zagreb’s archaeological museum.
Linen, the textile, as well as the paper made from linen rags, is exceptionally strong, very supple, and folds remarkably well. Although supple, it retains its shape, being inelastic. It has the ability to absorb water and still feel dry. These characteristics, at least partly, explain why centuries old drawings can be so well preserved.
US banknotes are made from linen and cotton rags. Their lifespan, about 20 abuse-filled months (it’s estimated that a dollar bill can be folded 4,000 times before tearing), is a good deal longer than that of other currencies. Linen becomes stronger in water than when dry, and bills accidentally left in pockets launder perfectly.
Flax grows thigh high and has pretty blue to almost white flowers with five petals. The plant reaches maturity in about 100 days. In Italy, it is planted in the early spring and harvested in June. In colder climates, it’s planted later. Egypt’s warmer climate would make flax a winter crop.
Once mature, the whole plant, with the roots, is lifted from the ground. The process in readying the fiber for weaving is very involved and it is hard to imagine that for millennia nearly all families grew flax, retted it, scutched it, spun it, wove it, and then created garments. By the Middle Ages, Viterbo, a city in Northern Lazio, had a thriving flax industry. The area’s thermal springs originally attracted the Etruscans, and the Romans built elaborate baths there. Bullicame, the name of the springs and shallow pools closest to the city, those where prostitutes bathed according to Dante, were also used to rett or macerate flax stems. Retting frees the fibers from the woody center of the stem. The heat of the water accelerated the retting process.
Where water is unavailable, flax is allowed to rett in the field, the dew and rain act to release the fibers, just more slowly. After this the flax is allowed to dry and then it is scutched, or beaten. In the process the precious flax strands are separated from the tow, the shorter fibers. I realized how right the terms “tow-headed” and “flaxen-haired” were when I saw this photograph of Egyptian flax in the ad of an Egyptian online flax merchant.