Ancient Egypt: Flax - harvest, linen production: spinning, weaving
FlaxFlax 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 .
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 .....
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.
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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 ....
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.
Old man rippling flax
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.
SpinningThe 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 . 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 fingerSpinning 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?
Model of horizontal loom
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
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 .
Instead of the warps being being tied to the beams, or - as has been suggested  - 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
... 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...
Vertical loom, 18th dynasty
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....3]. During the 11th dynasty the width of the cloth measured 160 to 180 cm.
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.
Source: H.L. Roth 
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,To the wise fine cloth symbolized vanity
Do not covet copper,The cloth was often bleached and sometimes dyed . It was generally sewn into sacklike kalasiris or wrapped around the hips and worn like a kilt.
List of offerings of linen, 4th dynasty
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.were made.
[ ] 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 
[ ] Model of horizontal loom: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
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.
... the god's nobles, the god's friends,
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. M.Lichtheim Ancient Egyptian Literature, Vol.1, p.207
 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. 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
 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.
Source: H.E.Winlock Heddle Jacks of Middle Kingdom Looms, Ancient Egypt, 1922
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| Photographs taken by G. Foley at the Egyptian Museum,|
| H. Ling Roth, Ancient Egyptian and Greek Looms|
| Textile production and clothing|
|Hank of flax, British Museum|
|Ancient economies by M.Silver; halfway down the page he discusses linen|
|Linen from the Tarkhan tomb (Petrie Museum)|
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