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Growing flax: the “color-of-heaven plant”

Since the time of the pyramids, Linum usitatissimum L. provided the essential textile fibers for weaving and making clothing. However, traces of flax cultivation date back earlier, to the Neolithic Period (on archeological sites in the Fayum depression south-west of the Nile delta).

In hieroglyphics, the plant is sometimes referred to by the ancient Egyptian word mehy, the determinative of which shows a braid of fibers. It is also referred to by the blue color of its flower, according to the expression “color-of-heaven plant”. Traces of blue color have been found on the bas-relief of the mastaba (tomb) of Ti, dignitary at Saqqara, discovered by Auguste Mariette in 1865. The tombs of officials from the Old Kingdom (2780-2280 BC) in Lower Egypt include several scenes of flax cultivation, as in the mastaba of Ti.

Flax is best cultivated in marshy areas and Egyptian peasants usually plucked it when the stalks were still in bloom. In the Fayum depression, flax was harvested towards the end of March and exposed to the sun for a few days. Then, the peasants put it into sheaves transported to the threshing floor where the seeds were removed. Flax harvesting could be advanced or delayed, depending on what it was to be used for. To obtain seeds, flax was harvested when fully ripe. If the aim was to obtain fibers for weaving, the flax was pulled when flowering had passed and the stem was beginning to turn yellow, so that the seeds appeared wooly. This is the case in the picture from the tomb of Mera in Asyut in Middle Egypt, where the flax was pulled at the beginning of April, three and a half months after planting. The same practice was described in the book Description de l’Egypte (Histoire naturelle, tome XVII, 98-99), published after Bonaparte’s military campaign in 1798.

During the New Kingdom (1580-1085 BC), illustrations of this type can be seen in the tomb of Pahery, a civil administrator at El-Kab, as well as in the tomb of one of the chief craftsmen at Deir-el-Medineh, Sennedjem. Both examples are located in Upper Egypt. Once the flax was plucked, it was tied into bundles and the seeds were removed. The stalks were then retted by macerating them in a pit. Craftsmen could then begin processing the fibers: crushing the stalks with a mallet and then separating the fibers with a hackle. The next step was spinning, usually carried out by women.

Scene of flax-harvesting and bundling into sheaves in the Pahery Tomb in J. J. Tylor and F. L. Griffith, The Tomb of Paheri at El-Kab, 1894, London, Egypt Exploration Society, Pl. III (detail register).

Flax harvest in the presence of the landowner at a Tomb of a Middle Kingdom dignitary in N. de Garies Davies, The Rock Tombs of Deir-el-Gebrawi, vol. I, London 1902, Archeological Survey of Egypt, XIth Memoir, p. 97.

Flax spinning, weaving and uses in Egyptian society

Flax was spun by hand of course. Spindles have been found, and a tomb painting from Beni Hassan (that of the dignitary Khety of the Twelth Dynasty) shows women at work spinning. Some models of weaving looms are known from polychrome wooden examples dating to the Eleventh Dynasty (in the tomb of the dignitary Meketre in the Cairo Archeological Museum). Scenes show women in a workshop where there is a loom with a wooden frame supporting the warp threads. Two poles separate the warp into two layers, one with even-numbered threads on top, the other with odd-numbered threads. The weft thread is inserted alternatively behind one pole and then the other, using a manual shuttle. There are horizontal looms (Beni-Hassan Tomb, Twelfth Dynasty), but there are also examples of vertical looms (in the Theban Tomb of Djehutynefer, Eighteenth Dynasty).

Two women weaving on a horizontal loom (tomb of Khnumhotep at Beni Hassan). This Egyptian drawing could lead one to believe that this was a vertical loom, which is not the case, see P. E. Newberry, Beni Hasan, Vol. II, 1893, London, Archeological Survey of Egypt, Pl. XIII (detail register).

Some scenes relate to the care of linen and clothing: washing and bleaching are depicted in the tomb of Khnumhotep at Beni Hassan (Twelfth Dynasty) and in the tomb of Ipouy at Deir el-Medina (New Kingdom, Nineteenth Dynasty). Some inscriptions on ostraca (pottery shards) mention lists of linen delivered for cleaning. Linen garments for both men and women can be seen on bas-reliefs, statues and paintings. Men wore a loincloth, sometimes pleated and fastened with a wide belt. Women wore long, tight-fitting dresses with wide straps. Courtesans sometimes wore linen fishnets adorned with faience beads. During the New Kingdom, ceremonial garments were generally weighted and finely pleated with wide sleeves.

The mourners and their pleated linen garments (Thebes, Eighteenth Dynasty tomb of Neferhotep) in N. de Garies Davies, The Tomb of Nefer-Hotep at Thebes, I, 1933, New-York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Pl. XXII ( detail register).

Linen garments have been found in a number of tombs, including that of Tutankhamun (Eighteenth Dynasty). In the tomb of Pharaoh Thutmosis IV at Thebes, several tapestry textiles embroidered with colourful motifs (blue, yellow, red, green and dark brown) were found. A Ramses III belt, 5 meters long and 12.7 cm wide, was unearthed at Thebes. This linen belt was embroidered with motifs. In the tomb of the artisan–architect Kha and his wife Merit, a pile of folded linen and bed covers was found (New Kingdom, Deir el-Medina). A number of inscriptions refer to the harshness of the weaver’s and bleacher’s trades on the banks of the Nile (see The Satire of Trades or The Instruction of Khety, a papyrus known from a New Kingdom copy).

Other uses for flax in everyday life

According to medical papyri, the oil of the plant (leaves and seeds) was used in medicinal preparations. This use persisted into the Ptolemaïc Period. Linseed oil was needed to fill the bowls of oil lamps, and wicks were also made from linen. Castor oil, however, was apparently less expensive. In Roman times, portraits of the deceased were painted on the coffin: a wooden plaque was covered with a painted linen cloth (in Fayum, for families of dignitaries). Among the portraits kept in Paris at the Louvre Museum is N° 2733.3 that of a young woman. It was painted on linen canvas glued to limewood (2nd half of 2nd century CE).

Text by Catherine Chadefaud

Translation by Cozette Griffin-Kremer

1 Comment

Rachel Hosier
Rachel Hosier
Aug 18, 2023

Great article, thanks for posting!

It is thought that the Kingdom of Meroe (in present day Sudan), despite being one of the highest quality producers of flax in Africa for centuries, collapsed c.300AD due to the introduction of cotton production, which demanded more resources and more water than the flax crops.

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