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From medieval Irish divorce law to current grunge linen with a touch of nettle

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

Otto Wilhelm Thomé, Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, ©Kurt Stueber, GNU Free Document License,,

Before a glance at present-day grunge fashion, let’s take a quick look at some tidbits of information on flax and linen from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, first, the medieval Welsh tale of Culhwch ac Olwen, where the young hero enlists friends in high places – King Arthur and his court – to help him win the hand of the giant Ysbaddaden’s daughter, Olwen. One of the forty impossible-seeming tasks set the young suitor by the ill-willed father is a demand for an impressive amount of flax seed to grow the plants to make the daughter’s wedding veil. This task is not accomplished by the band of heroes recruited, but by ants in an anthill, that are rescued from a fire threatening them. In gratitude, they gather the nine bushels of flax seed demanded by the giant father, a typical example of “animal helpers” in popular tales of many eras. (As an aside, the stakes involved for the father, who had made a lot of enemies in his life, are rather high: in addition to having his beard, flesh and skin shaved off, he is also beheaded, once the quest for the maiden’s hand is achieved at the end. (1))

Left: Linseed, Author: Rasbak, CC BY-SA 3.0, Creative Commons, Wikipedia “Seeds are 4-6.5 mm long and 2.5-3 mm wide, flat egg-shaped” Right: Detailed sideview of a Formica rufa, red wood ant, Author: Richard Bartz, Munich, Creative Commons

This very magical tale mentions many quite practical artefacts and processes involved in flax-growing, and certainly a bridal veil was among the objects of linen production in the British Isles. It is likely that the textile plant was introduced to Ireland from Roman Britain, as the Irish term lín comes from Latin linum. Although wool was a more widely cited cloth in early texts, linen was used for the tunics worn under cloaks and is well represented in archaeological contexts by the early Christian period in Ireland.

A law-text dated to around 700 CE, the Cáin Lánamna (The Law of Couples) speaks of dividing property upon divorce and embodies the love of detail typical of early Irish Law: it all depends on just when you get divorced, in relation to flax and linen! If divorce takes place while the flax is still growing, the wife will get only a cup of linseed. Should the stalks of flax have been pulled and bound in sheaves, she will receive the ninth share. There is no mention of retting in the CL, but the text specifies that beating is exclusively a woman’s work, after which she gets the sixth share. However, conditions definitely improve for the lady, if the flax has been scutched. In that case, she is entitled to the full half that has been woven into cloth. Another law text, the Di Chetharshlicht Athgabála (On the Four Divisions of Distraint) mentions all the implements associated with processing flax: the scutching-board or a scutching rod, and the implements for spinning, weaving and embroidery as belonging to women and pertaining to their tasks.

Left: Example of present-day homespun and woven linen doily with lily-of-the-valley motif from Northern Ireland, 26x36cm, personal collection and right: close-up of 9x20cm section.

Sidebar: Visual examination via photo from textile analysis expert Sophie Desrosiers (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris): “as for your doily, it is linen taffetas (or might be hemp, but in that case, is very fine) and the irregularities in the threads are probably due to being hand-spun. Since it is a “discontinuous” fiber, we use the term taffetas for the weave.

Recalling Olwen’s bridal veil in the Welsh tale, we may note that garments could be used as currency in ancient Ireland, as were cattle and other chattels, as well as female slaves, all movable property. The legal system was very tit-for-tat and a person’s value was calculated according to social standing, hence his or her compensation for damage or injury varied, at times greatly, and mitigating circumstances were the lifeblood of legal discussion. Cloth or clothing could figure in compensation paid, for example, an injury to the thigh was fined by giving the wounded party three-year-old dry heifers and linen mantles (quantities unspecified) in the early medieval period (2).

Somewhat later in Scotland, Isabel Grant also recalls that not all linen was intended for clothing or the bed chamber, citing the saffron-dyed, closely pleated linen shirts, called leine chroich, which were defensive battle-dress in medieval Ireland and Scotland and this can be seen on carved effigies of warriors on 15th-century tombstones. Fine bed-linen was an important status symbol and a well-off laird’s son in the 16th century was cited as having twenty-four pairs of sheets. Grant, who founded the Highland Folk Life Museum, knew of families, including her own in the 1960s, who treasured linen bed clothes woven in the early 19th century. Before the industrial development of linen production, much weaving was done by itinerant, as well as local weavers, except for elaborate table linen done in towns. She notes that innovations in spinning were highly important, as linen production was the major industry in Scotland in the 18th century. Quality was regulated by Act of Parliament and linen represented a major cash crop. It was generally calculated that one weaver at that time needed three to four spinners to supply thread for his work.

Scottish tradition mentions other details absent from or contradictory to the earlier Irish law texts, for example, on gendered activity, that hand-beating was considered a man’s job and a dusty one at that, or that flax-growing – before it was abandoned under the avalanche of cotton – was considered troublesome because the crop exhausted the ground and required considerable weeding, which was women’s work. (You can watch the dust fly and several of the steps in processing flax in a 3-minute video at with commentary in German, as well as a longer film on handweaving). In this somewhat later testimony, Highland tradition cited the local retting pool as an ideal place for concealing anything people might not want the Excise Office to investigate, witness to a familiar reticence about paying taxes.

Scotland was not lacking in narrative tales that mention flax and linen, one of which provides a fine description of the process involved. In a story from Barra, a mother dreams of the Fairy Washerwoman, the bean nighe, washing her son’s linen shirt, a noted omen of death. This does not augur well, as the son is at sea on his way with others to Glasgow for the yearly sale of their produce. To highlight the tangibility of her love for him, she recalls how she made his shirt: she planted and plucked the flax, shrank, beetled (beat), softened, heckled, combed, spun, steeped, sewed and bleached it. Unlike so many tales of dreams of omens of death, this one ends well, as the young man returns home safely, and… with a bride (3).

When tales do not describe linen and its uses, vocabulary often can. The Dictionary of the Irish Language (on lín) indicates that some roping or cordage was made of flax and that it was used in nets for hunting, snares and fishing, as well as for hair-netting (4), and the Dictionary of the Welsh Language (GPC on llin) adds the production of candle-wicks, that Welsh had the term parallel to English “flaxen” to describe hair, and that the term “flax” was also used in many other common names of plants other than Linum usitatissimum (5).

Emile Claus (1849-1924), Flax harvesting in Belgium, 1904, Royal Museums of Fine Arts Belgium: 3769, Author: Georges Jansoone, public domain, Wikipedia Commons

All the sources here enumerate the steps involved in the move from flax to linen, often in detail, as does Estyn Evans on Ireland, noting especially that harvesting it was considered unpleasant, as this was done by pulling up, which was especially hard on the hands and stooping over, equally hard on the back. At least for the retting process, flax was considered less obnoxious than hemp or jute, the odour of which was especially strong. On the pretty side of harvesting the plant, like wheat straw, rush or grass, it was also made into harvest knots with their rich traditions (and contradictions….), some especially fine pieces being made with flax, as for the five-pointed, star-shaped knots (6).

It is well to recall that texts, whether legal or narrative, often mention flax alongside hemp and nettles, noting that the last required by far the greatest labor input and was considered the most “magical” of the fabrics obtained, often being used in fairy cloaks in popular traditions wherever it grew. The existence of these plants as once and potential sources of textiles can remind us of the shifting sands of resource availabilities, the replacement of one fabric plant by another (or by artificial or synthetics fibers), at times recalling sudden changes brought about by crisis and war. The Allied blockade of the Axis powers during World War I gave nettle production a last, unexpected impetus. When Germany and Austria ran short of cotton, the value of the nettle as a substitute was immediately recognized, and by 1915, 1.3 million kg of nettles were collected in Germany, rising to 2.7 million kg in 1917, without any attempt at systematic cultivation. The amount of nettles grown wild in Germany at the time was estimated at 60,000 tons. Since self-sown nettles provided an insufficient quantity to satisfy demand, studies undertaken at the time indicated their quality could be improved by cultivation, but this proved more difficult than expected. On top of that obstacle, some 40 kg of nettles provided enough cloth for only one shirt. However, nettle-cloth was also utilized to make artificial silk and in the manufacture of gas-mantles and gas-masks (7). Perhaps nettle might one day make a come-back, just as linen was once used in battle dress?

Nettle, hemp and flax are all associated with a wealth of popular tradition, though nettle is much too prickly to be handled without some apprehension (except when young). Hemp and flax were both cited for marriage divination in Scotland, so we can close this look at older sources with a charm from northeast Scotland, noted in the 19th century for Hallowe’en: “when the shades of evening were falling, the maiden had to steal out quietly with a handful of flax-seed, and walk across the ridges of a field, sowing the seed, and repeating the words: Lint-seed I saw [sow] ye, Lint-seed I saw ye, Lat [let] him it’s to be my lad, Come aifter and pu’ [pull] me. On looking over the left shoulder she saw the apparition of him who was to be her mate crossing the ridges, as it were, in the act of pulling flax” (8)

A touch of contemporary grunge

At home, we have two sorts of linen sheets and pillow cases, the first given us by my sister-in-law from her wedding trousseau, so embroidered with her maiden name’s initials before 1960 – not as long ago as the bed-linen kept by families in Scotland that Isabel Grant mentions, but still…. Our newer bedlinen is from a well-known French brand, Lin des Vosges, a business now 100 years old, that also deals in cotton and percale items. In order to add to the grunge glamour currently in fashion in up-market clothes, they give this bed-linen several pre-washes to “erode” the somewhat stiff quality of the fabric and thus get a slightly “wrinkled” look (also = no ironing). Full disclosure: there is no conflict of interest. The Lin des Vosges follk do not know about this mention of their work.

Prepared by:

Cozette Griffin-Kremer, Associate Researcher, CRBC Brest

Notes refer to the passages preceding them. These references often have detailed descriptions of tools and techniques used in flax-growing, processing into linen and, at times, weaving.

1/ Gwyn Jones, G. and T. Jones, The Mabinogion, London, Dent & Sons, 1949, 113-114, 127.

2/ Kelly, F. Early Irish Farming, Dublin Institute, 1998, 269, 270, 482, 598.

3/ Grant, I.F. Highland Folk Ways. Edinburgh, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961, 219, 220-1, 228. The story from Barra cited by Grant is in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica, Vol. IV, 273.

4/ DIL (Dictionary of the Irish Language) Letter L, p. 156.

5/ GPC (Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru/A Dictionary of the Welsh Language) at

6/ E. Estyn Evans, Irish Folk Ways, London, Routledge, 1957/1989, 157-158, 208-209.

7/ Grieve, Maud. (1931) A Modern Herbal. New York, Dover Reprint, 1971, Vol. II, 576.

8/ Vickery, Roy. The Oxford Dictionary of Plant Lore, Oxford UP, 1997, 176-7, 134 citing Gregor, W. An Echo of the Olden Time, London, 1874, 103.


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