Flax-Linen, the fibre of civilisation(s): the event book that unveils the history of a thousand-year-old textile

25 October 2023

  • Linen

The book, Flax-linen, the fibre of civilisation(s), tells us the story of flax-linen. From agronomy to economics and technology, the story takes us on a journey through time from Neolithic times to the present day. With its sacred nature, this fibre offers us a unique insight into history.

Flax-Linen, the fibre of civilisation(s) - book
copyright Alliance

In the style of an anthology, Flax-Linen, Fibre of Civilisation(s), co-edited by Alain Camilleri and the Alliance for European Flax-Linen & Hemp, recounts the tale of flax, a modest plant with delicate fibres. It offers an introduction to the civilizations that have cultivated the flax plant and transformed its fibre into linen fabric, which features in both the material and spiritual realms. Indeed, the sacred essence of this material seamlessly blends with its everyday applications, providing a unique glimpse into history.

A collaborative work of collective knowledge, with a contemporary role

Flax-Linen, Fibre of Civilisation(s) is a collaborative effort that brings together the expertise of archaeobotanists, archaeologists, historians, scientific laboratories, designers and industrialists. Not to mention the technical proficiency of European farmers, spinners and weavers.

This multidisciplinary work offers a fresh perspective on flax-linen, uncovering the myriad facets of the fibre and its role in our history. Beyond the historical glory days, the book also sheds light on the contemporary relevance of flax-linen. Despite its modest share of the world's textile fibre production (less than 0.5%), flax-linen is growing in popularity, internationally. Consumers in industrialised nations are increasingly seeking products made from ethically produced materials and methods, along with guarantees of traceability. They are interested in renewable resources and production aligned with sustainable development. Flax-linen perfectly embodies these values, which are also cherished by the flax-linen industry itself.

Responsible agriculture and industry

The partnership between farmer and scutcher is essential for optimising flax harvest management.

Pascal Prévost, Alliance for European Flax-Linen & Hemp -
François Bert, Arvalis Institut du végétal.

Chapter 1 of the compendium highlights the remarkable increase in flax cultivation in North-West Europe over the past decade. In fact, the area cultivated for flax has expanded by 133% during this period. With over 9,000 farms dedicated to its cultivation, France has solidified its position as the world leader in flax production. However, the industry now faces two significant challenges. First, it must increase production to capture more market share. Secondly, it must adapt to future climate changes that are likely to alter the geography of flax cultivation. These challenges necessitate a reconsideration of yields, crop expansion and the adoption of more environmentally friendly farming practices.

Flax-linen through the ages

Chapter 1 of the compendium highlights the remarkable increase in flax cultivation in North-West Europe over the past decade. In fact, the area cultivated for flax has expanded by 133% during this period. With over 9,000 farms dedicated to its cultivation, France has solidified its position as the world leader in flax production. However, the industry now faces two significant challenges. First, it must increase production to capture more market share. Secondly, it must adapt to future climate changes that are likely to alter the geography of flax cultivation. These challenges necessitate a reconsideration of yields, crop expansion and the adoption of more environmentally friendly farming practices.

Chapter 2 reveals the remarkable connection between flax-linen and the sacred. Once synonymous with purity and spirituality, the Old Testament mentions linen more than 80 times.

Alain Camilleri copyright Alliance

"Traces of this seemingly delicate plant can be found in fundamental texts of our Judeo-Christian culture, depending on its growth stage. Linen is linked to foundational myths such as that of Abel and Cain. Linen is a textile that can be described as ecumenical, used in Egyptian funeral rites and to clothe the statues of Babylonian divinities, and even employed as protection for the Dead Sea Scrolls." - Alain Camilleri, Linen Consultant and Cultural Mediator.

The Western Middle Ages also revered linen, employing it extensively in liturgical vestments and even to protect sacred texts.

Nicolas Sarzeaud copyright Alliance

"Linen has played a significant role in the textile ecosystem for sacred purposes and in the Christian religion since the Middle Ages. One cloth must be pure linen, without any embellishments: this is the corporal. It is a square cloth on which the holy sacrament (host and chalice) are placed. This cloth must be of the same material and appearance as Christ's shroud since Christ's body was wrapped in the shroud." - Nicolas Sarzeaud, Doctor of History, researcher at the University of Lorraine.

Chapter 3 delves into the heart of the political and technical issues in which linen has always played a role. In the 17th century, the Edict of Nantes encouraged linen cultivation in France, but its revocation under Louis XIV led to the exile of many Huguenots, who carried their expertise to the British Isles and beyond. Later, in the 19th century, inventions like the flax spinning machine and the automated loom revolutionised the textile industry.

Flax: From a Laboratory of Ideas to a Fabric of Innovations

Flax-linen is more than just a fibre and textile. This is explained in Chapter 4 of the book. Explored by contemporary artists such as Sheila Hicks and Claude Viallat, it has become a central element in artistic creation. It is also indispensable as a concealed support in the construction of garments, reinforcing their durability and longevity. Chapter 5 explores linen beyond its fashion applications. We discover that flax has evolved into a high-performance technical component used in composite materials.

"Flax is now entering the composites industry for its environmental properties. [Flax combines intrinsic mechanical and functional properties. The goal is to leverage these distinctive properties to enhance product value. This is innovation, not substitution. Flax fibre has a low density, half that of glass fibre. Thanks to this low density, flax-reinforced materials perform well in all industries and applications where lightness is a crucial criterion." - Julie Pariset, Director of the Alliance's Innovation and CSR Department.

Julie Pariset copyright Alliance

The unique properties of flax make it an ideal choice for a wide range of applications, from vibration absorption to electromagnetic transparency and sound and heat insulation, all of which are contributing to shaping a future where flax plays an essential role in the pursuit of sustainable solutions.

Biosourced flax compounds represent a symbiosis of technology and nature.

Lut Pil - Composites in design, 2018-2019

Flax-Linen, Fibre of Civilisation(s) unveils a captivating exploration of the history of linen through the ages. The contributors offer a distinctive perspective on this thousand-year-old fibre, unveiling its significance in our past and its potential for our future. The publication, coordinated by Alain Camilleri and the Alliance for European Flax-Linen & Hemp, is a must-read for anyone intrigued by the history, culture and future of flax. It showcases an extraordinary fibre that has woven an exceptional cultural pact with humanity.

Linen, Fiber of Civilisation(s) - a collective work edited by Alain Camilleri and the Alliance for European Flax-Linen & Hemp,
Comprising 336 pages.
Published on 4th October 2023, available in French bookshops such as Fnac, Cultura, Decitre, Chapitre, Le Furet du Nord... and online on Amazon.fr, Fnac.com and Rakuten.com.
Retail price: €39

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