Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant. Linen is laborious to manufacture, but the fiber is very absorbent and garments made of linen are valued for their exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather.
Many products are made of linen: aprons, bags, towels (swimming, bath, beach, body and wash towels), napkins, bed linens, tablecloths, runners, chair covers, and men’s and women’s wear.
The word linen is of West Germanic origin and cognate to the Latin name for the flax plant, linum, and the earlier Greek λινόν (linón). This word history has given rise to a number of other terms in English, most notably line, from the use of a linen (flax) thread to determine a straight line.
Textiles in a linen weave texture, even when made of cotton, hemp and other non-flax fibers, are also loosely referred to as “linen”. Such fabrics generally also have their own specific names, for example fine cotton yarn in a linen-style weave is called Madapolam.
The collective term “linens” is still often used generically to describe a class of woven or knitted bed, bath, table and kitchen textiles traditionally made of linen. In the past, “linens” also referred to lightweight undergarments such as shirts, chemises, waist-shirts, lingerie(a word also cognate with linen), and detachable shirt collars and cuffs, all of which were historically made almost exclusively out of linen. The inner layer of fine composite cloth garments (as for example jackets) was traditionally made of linen, hence the word lining.
Linen textiles appear to be some of the oldest in the world: their history goes back many thousands of years. Fragments of straw, seeds, fibers, yarns, and various types of fabrics dating to about 8000 BC have been found in Swiss lake dwellings. Dyed flax fibers found in a prehistoric cave in Georgia suggest the use of woven linen fabrics from wild flax may date back even earlier to 36,000 BP.
Linen was sometimes used as a form of currency in ancient Egypt. Egyptian mummies were wrapped in linen as a symbol of light and purity, and as a display of wealth. Some of these fabrics, woven from hand-spun yarns, were very fine for their day, but are coarse compared to modern linen. In 1923 the German city Bielefeld issued banknotes printed on linen. Today, linen is usually an expensive textile produced in relatively small quantities. It has a long staple (individual fiber length) relative to cotton and other natural fibers.