Ancient Egypt: Cultural and political history, mythology and daily life
Ancient Egypt: Flax - harvest, linen production: spinning, weaving
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Flax

    Flax has been used in the Middle East since the fifth millennium BCE. In Egypt its role was probably more important than in many other cultures, as Egyptians rarely used wool and cotton was unknown during much of their ancient history. It was seen as a gift of the Nile, as the Hymn to Hapi has it: People are clothed with the flax of his fields [4].

    During the Old Kingdom an official called Metjen had his career written down. Being made overseer of all flax was not the least of the many honours bestowed upon him, a few of them quoted below:

........ becoming local governor of Xois, and inferior field-judge of Xois. He was appointed [...]-judge, he was made overseer of all flax of the king, he was made ruler of the Southern Perked and deputy, he was made local governor of the people of Dep, palace ruler of Miper and Persepa, and local governor of the Saite nome .....
J.H.Breasted Ancient Records of Egypt Part I § 172

    The plant takes about a hundred days to grow from seed to mature plant with a height of between sixty centimetres and a metre. The flax harvest preceded the wheat harvest. The flax plants were gathered in whole, when they were in bloom, as better fibre could be produced from young plants. That the Egyptians were well aware of this fact is attested to in documents.
    Flax fibres are among the longest and strongest of all natural fibres used by man. They even gain in strength when wet due to a high pectin content which acts like a glue under moist conditions. They dry quickly and resist decay better than most other natural fibres.

    A number of wall paintings in tombs (Petosiris' for instance, who had been a high priest of Thoth in Ptolemaic times) show flax being grown as a crop.
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- Flax harvest scene, After a relief in the tomb of Petosiris, ca.	300 BCE
    Caption: I am the grower with two strong arms, a beautiful face, in the fields , consummate at all labours of the grower, seeing the interest from the field when the agreeable (harvest) has arrived, giving instructions to the childen of the peasant, making them think of the year's labour ....
flax
Flowering flax plants -
-     The naked little girl following the reaper on the right is a gleaner. According to the caption: It is yours what is in your two arms to clothe your body. The two workers just on the left are making torsions with the flax producing a primitive rope with which to tie the flax bales.

Partially defaced wallpainting from Paheris' tomb. Old man rippling flax
Source: C.R. Lepsius Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien

Caption:
The old man: 'Even if you bring me 11009 (sheaves), I shall ripple them all.'
The younger worker: 'Hurry up and stop talking, bald headed old fieldhand.'

    Some of the plants were left standing to ripen, and their seeds were collected for next years sowing and for the preparation of linseed oil used in medicines. The coarser fibers of these fully matured plants were used for making strings and ropes.
    The plants were uprooted, turned upside-down and the earth adhering to the roots shaken off. Sheaves were formed with the blue flowers showing on either side of the sheaf.
    The men carried the sheaves on their shoulders, children are depicted carrying them on their heads. With a ripple the seeds were cleared away. The next step performed by the Egyptian is unknown, but stalks were cooked, retted in water or left for a while lying on the ground until they were partly rotted. They were then gathered together, beaten to extract the fibres (scutching) and finally dressed with a hackle removing last remnants of pith and other unwanted matter.
 
    Pliny describes how flax was grown in his day and mentions the economic importance the plant had for the Egyptians apart from the obvious one of clothing the native population:
Flax is mostly sown in sandy soils, and after a single ploughing only. There is no plant that grows more rapidly than this; sown in spring, it is pulled up in summer, and is, for this reason as well, productive of considerable injury to the soil. There may be some, however, who would forgive Egypt for growing it, as it is by its aid that she imports the merchandize of Arabia and India.
........
The flax of Egypt, though the least strong of all as a tissue, is that from which the greatest profits are derived. There are four varieties of it, the Tanitic, the Pelusiac, the Butic, and the Tentyritic--so called from the various districts in which they are respectively grown.
Pliny, Natural History, Book XIX - (eds. John Bostock, H.T. Riley)

Linen

Spinning

splice and twist technique     The resulting yellowish or greyish fibres were in the form of flat, 60 to 80 centimetres long strips, each consisting of 20 to 40 single fibres. These strips were then divided into strands of the required thickness. Until the Late Period many pairs of strips were spliced together end to end and twisted into rove, which was then spun into thread [7]. Egyptian spinners often used two spindles simultaneously, with balls of flax roves lying on the ground or in low containers, which served as a sort of distaff. Sometimes the spinster stood on a foot-stool in order to have the greatest distance possible between the spindle and the flax.
 
    In the latter part of the first millennium BCE the splice-and-twist technique was abandoned in favour of draft spinning, where the fibres are drawn from a loose mass of raw material gathered on a distaff. Petrie described the spinning process thus:
... the size [of the 12th dynasty spindles] varying from 7 to 15 inches long. The main differences from spindles of the XVIIIth dynasty is the greater depth of the whorl, and the long spiral groove for the thread at the top. These were used like the modern Arab spindles, most probably; the bunch of raw material after carding is loosely bound round the distaff, which is carried tucked under the left arm, the left hand controls the supply of fibre, dragging it out of the loose mass ; the fibre as spun into thread is wound on the spindle below the whorl, and passes up the side of the whorl and through the groove at the top (a hook in the modern form) which prevents its unwinding. Then the right hand lays hold of the bottom of the spindle, and giving it a rapid spin between finger
Model of spinning room, Source: G. Foley Model of a workshop for spinning and weaving
Middle Kingdom
Photo courtesy G. Foley
and thumb it is dropped, dangling by the thread from its top. While it continues spinning both hands are actively employed in dragging out the fibre (which comes off the distaff) into an equable thinness, which as it passes through the right fingers is immediately twisted into thread by the rotating spindle which hangs from it. As soon as the spindle has lost its spin, it is picked up by the right hand and respun, and more fibre is drawn out and supplied to lengthen the thread. When the spindle reaches too low to the ground it is taken in the right hand, the thread released from the top groove, and wound on the shank by tossing the spindle round in the hand; when wound up close to the loose fibre it is re-caught in the groove and more spinning is continued.
Kahun, Gurob and Hawara by W.M.Flinders Petrie
    Spinning was woman's work, or, among divine beings, a task for a goddess:
Art thou the byssus robe of Osiris, the divine Drowned, woven by the hand of Isis, spun by the hand of Nephthys?

Weaving

    Woven linen has been known in Egypt since 5000 BCE. The oldest depiction of a loom was found at Badari on a pottery dish dating from the middle of the 5th millennium BCE while the first known pictures of weavers were drawn during the Middle Kingdom. Model of a horizontal loom, XI dynasty, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Model of horizontal loom
Middle Kingdom
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

    The loom was horizontal with a wooden support for the warp beam and a cloth beam that could be rotated, to which the ends of the warp threads were tied and onto which the woven cloth was wound. The warp yarns were lifted with two little sticks (lease rods) in order to pull through the weft with the help of a shuttle, which according to a a depiction was already known in the Old Kingdom. The weft was beaten in with a bent stick.
    Two women generally worked the loom, in early times crouching as the looms were very low. But sometimes looms were made for three or even four weavers.

Two women weavers crouching at a horizontal loom
Tomb of Khnumhotep, 12th dynasty, Beni Hassan
Source: Lepsius Denkmäler aus Aegypten und Aethiopien
 
When the Egyptians wanted to show things which were behind each other on a horizontal plane, they drew them above each other. Thus the loom in this picture may look as if it were vertical when in reality it is horizontal.

    In this Middle Kingdom depiction the woman on the left is handling two lease rods, used to keep the warp lines taut and to separate odd- from even-numbered warp lines, a function later taken over by the heddle. The weaver on the right may be inserting a weft thread using a shuttle or she may be pushing the weft into position with a slashing stick. The finished fabric close to the breast beam (which is just off the ground in this depiction) is shown as having a selvedge on the left side preventing fraying [5].

Heddle jack, Middle Kingdom, Source: Petrie Museum website

Heddle jack
Middle Kingdom
Source: Petrie Museum website

    Contemporary depictions sometimes show short pieces of wood lying beside the looms, the like of which have been found at Lahun and are thought to be heddle jacks, i.e. supports for the heddle rod [9]. True heddles [6] were still unknown, and lease rods were used to separate the warp threads.
Loom weights, Middle Kingdom, Buhen; Source: UCL     Instead of the warps being being tied to the beams, or - as has been suggested [7] - being passed around the warp and breast beams in a loop, the ends meeting and tied to a rod, warp weights were apparently occasionally used to keep them in place. These weights, which might weigh as much as half a kilo, were made of a variety of materials: dried mud, pottery and stone.

Middle Kingdom loom weight found at Buhen
Source: Petrie Museum website
Top row: mud and sandstone perforated
Bottom row: sandstone and pottery with a groove

    There are no depictions of how the weavers used them. Using vertical looms, the Greeks more than a millennium later are known to have tied them to the bottom ends of the warps [5]. But they, unlike the Egyptians, worked from the top down.
... the men sit at home at the loom; and here, while the rest of the world works the woof up the warp, the Egyptians work it down...
Herodotus, Euterpe, 35.1
Vertical loom, tomb of Neferhotep, 18th dynasty

Vertical loom, 18th dynasty
Tomb of Neferhotep, Thebes
Source: after Wilkinson, Ancient Egyptians, John Murray, London
 
The warp threads, which are not shown, are attached to the warp beam at the top and the breast beam at the bottom. The weaver is seemingly holding a shuttle rod or a beater-in in his right hand.

    Vertical looms with heavy wooden frames came into use during the New Kingdom. A movable pole supported the warp beam. The lease rods lifting the warp yarns were worked with the help of a lever. The weft was beaten in with a slay, which later was replaced by a comb [8]. The cloth or breast beam was at the foot of the loom. The weavers sat in front of it on little stools (see the weavers working on the groundfloor in the house of Djehutinefer).
    Unsurprisingly, the Satire of the Trades - according to the text written by a scribe trying to convince his son of the advantages of his profession - gives a gloomy picture of the weaver's trade:
The weaver inside the weaving house is more wretched than a woman. His knees are drawn up against his belly. He cannot breathe the air. If he wastes a single day without weaving, he is beaten with 50 whip lashes. He has to give food to the doorkeeper to allow him to come out to the daylight.
    Looms were among the more intricate tools made in the ancient world. They consisted of many parts which had to fulfill quite a range of different mechanical requirements, probably one of the reasons for the various kinds of wood used in their construction. In a Demotic bill of sales from the Roman period a loom, 3½ cubits wide, is described as follows (unfortunately neither the loom parts nor all the kinds of timber used have been identified):
... its two warp beams (?) (are of) brV-wood with both its supports (?) of olive wood, a rm-part of one of the forementioned warp beams (?) is of Sa (?)-wood, a Vj whose Xaj is of brV-wood....
Berlin P 23779+30009
After the transliteration and German translation on the Thesaurus Linguae Aegyptiae web site
G. Vittmann ed.: Demotische Textdatenbank, Akademie für Sprache und Literatur Mainz => administrative und dokumentarische Texte => Verkaufsurkunden => Webstuhlverkauf

The end product

    The linen they produced could be exceedingly delicate. By 3000 BCE the Egyptian weavers were capable of weaving the finest of cloth with 64 warp threads and 48 weft threads per centimetre. About 6th dynasty (ca 2100 BCE) cloth it was said, it was so fine it could be pulled through a signet ring, a similar claim was made by Pliny concerning first millennium linen [3]. During the 11th dynasty the width of the cloth measured 160 to 180 cm.
 
tiny part of a 5 metre long girdle, Source: h.L.Roth Tiny section of a 5 metre long girdle, tapering in width from almost 13 cm to about 5 cm.
More than 100 warp threads per cm.
Ramses III
Source: H.L. Roth [5]
    The quality of the cloth of the clothes people wore was often remarked upon, as it set apart the powerful from the humble:
... You are clothed in the robe of finest linen,
The garments that clad the flesh of the god...
The prayers of Paheri
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. II, p.16
To the wise fine cloth symbolized vanity
Do not covet copper,
Disdain beautiful linen;
What good is one dressed in finery,
If he cheats before the god?
Faience disguised as gold,
Comes day, it turns to lead.
The instruction of Amenemope
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. II, p.157
    The cloth was often bleached and sometimes dyed [2]. It was generally sewn into sacklike kalasiris or wrapped around the hips and worn like a kilt.
List of offerings of linen, coffin of Minkhaf

List of offerings of linen, 4th dynasty
Source: W.S.Smith, The Coffin of Prince Min-khaf
Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Volume XIX, 1933

 
    Linen was the fabric of choice for the living, the dead were also buried in it. The mummifiers, after removing the inner organs and dehydrating the corpse with the help of salt and natron, anointed it with oils and finally wrapped it up with narrow strips of linen. Arms, legs and even fingers were wrapped separately. This swaddling afforded them the protection of the goddess Tait.
    Linen was also part of the funerary offerings, often symbolically, when written promises of offerings of
A thousand wnxw-strips, a thousand idmj-linen, four hand-breadths wide, a thousand Ssr-linen, four hand-breadths wide, (and) a thousand mAaA(?)-linen, four hand-breadths wide.
W.S.Smith, The Coffin of Prince Min-khaf, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, Volume XIX, 1933
were made.
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Picture sources:
[  ] Flax harvest scene, after a relief in the tomb of Petosiris: Lefebvre. Gustave ; 1924, Le Tombeau de Petosiris
[  ] Flax rippler: T.G.H. James Pharaos Volk
[  ] Model of spinning shop: G. Foley [1]
[  ] Model of horizontal loom: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
 
Footnotes:
[2]
The washerman's day is going up, going down. All his limbs are weak, (from) whitening his neighbors' clothes every day, from washing their linen.
Papyrus Lansing
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. II, p.169
... the god's nobles, the god's friends,
Who lean on their staffs,
Guardians of Upper Egypt,
Clad in red linen
Pyramid Texts, Pepi I, Utterance 440
M. Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol. I, p.45
[3]
We have seen some of these toils of a fineness so remarkable as to allow of being passed through a man's ring, running ropes and all, a single individual being able to carry an amount of nets sufficient to environ a whole forest--a thing which we know to have been done not long ago by Julius Lupus, who died prefect of Egypt. This, however, is nothing very surprising, but it really is quite wonderful that each of the cords was composed of no less than one hundred and fifty threads. Those, no doubt, will be astonished at this, who are not aware that there is preserved in the Temple of Minerva, at Lindus, in the Isle of Rhodes, the cuirass of a former king of Egypt, Amasis by name, each thread employed in the texture of which is composed of three hundred and sixty-five other threads.
Pliny, Natural History, Book XIX - (eds. John Bostock, H.T. Riley)
[4] M.Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.207
[6] The Concise Oxford Dictionary gives the following definition
heddle a looped wire or cord with an eye in the centre through which a warp yarn is passed in a loom before going through the reed.
Weaving comb, Roman. UC63826 [8] By Roman times the use of weaving combs was widespread. It was used to beat in the weft. During the Coptic period it was replaced by the reed.

Roman period weaving comb
Source: Petrie Museum website

- [9] H.E.Winlock's working model of a Middle Kingdom horizontal loom showing the use of heddle jacks. The jacks at the Petrie Museum would have raised the heddle to about 10 to 20 cm.
Working model of a Middle Kingdom horizontal loom
Source: H.E.Winlock Heddle Jacks of Middle Kingdom Looms, Ancient Egypt, 1922

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Offsite links(Opening in a new window)
These are just suggestions for further reading. I do not assume any responsibility for the content or availability of these sites.
 
G. Foley[1] Photographs taken by G. Foley at the Egyptian Museum,
Ancient Egyptian and Greek Looms[5] H. Ling Roth, Ancient Egyptian and Greek Looms
Textile production and clothing[7] Textile production and clothing
Hank of flaxHank of flax, British Museum
Ancient economiesAncient economies by M.Silver; halfway down the page he discusses linen
Petrie MuseumLinen from the Tarkhan tomb (Petrie Museum)
 
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