History of Flax Production
The oldest evidence of flax horticulture was found in a Swiss lake bed and dated at 10,000 years old. The oldest evidence of woven linen cloth comes from Egypt and is 8,000 years old. Some remarkable examples of finely woven linen have been found in Egypt. When the tomb of the Pharaoh Ramesses II, who died 1213 B.C.E., was discovered in 1881, the linen wrappings were in a state of perfect preservation - after more than 3000 years...When the tomb of Tutankhamen was opened, the linen curtains were found intact. Egyptian men wore kilts made of white linen and the women are often depicted wearing gowns of such fine linen fabric that you can see right through it.
Flax farming was more labor intensive than cotton, but flax plants could grow in cold climates where cotton couldn't, so flax cultivation dominated in northern Europe along with wool. Silk and cotton were imported from warmer regions but the transport costs made them much more costly than linen or wool in the Middle Ages.
The flax plant was harvested by pulling the entire plant out of the ground or cutting the stalks close to the soil. The plants were then left to rot in retting ponds or streams to breakdown the pulpy part of the stalks and release the long, shiny fibers. This took several weeks. When the retting was finished the long fibers could be separated from the rest of the plant by beating it between wooden blocks in a three-step processes call beating, scutching, and heckling.
Seamstresses making garments of linen,
By the 16th century, the production of flax had increased so much in England to satisfy the demand for linen garments that King Henry VIII made a law that no one could wear shirts or chemises made of more than "5 ells of that country cloth" or 6¼ yards in modern measure. It seems that so many of the streams, brooks, ponds, and lakes were being used for retting that the pollution caused by the rotting plant material was choking out the fish!