For most of my life I have been afraid of mummies. When I was five or six years old my parents let me stay up to watch Creature Feature every week — but just until the first commercial break. I was always tucked into bed with the lights out, sound asleep before any of the scary parts came on. But when “The Mummy” episode was aired, Mommy and Daddy forgot to get me out of the room before the monster came on the scene, so they decided I should get to stay up for the whole show to see that the good guys won in the end. It didn’t matter. I was officially terrified of mummies, so much so that I couldn’t go into Egyptian exhibits at museums even as an adult.
This mummy phobia, however, didn’t stop me from falling in love with everything else related to the Ancient Egyptians. I learned how to write my name with hieroglyphs. I took every book about King Tut out of the school library. When we watched The Ten Commandments, I found Ramses and Nefretiri oh so much more romantic and exciting than Moses and Miriam. To this day, the aesthetic of Ancient Egyptian writing, art, and clothing remains unsurpassed in beauty and elegance in my mind.
Finally, when I went to see the 1999 film The Mummy starring Rachel Weiss and Brandon Fraser, too embarrassed to tell the friends who invited me about my fear of mummies, I was cured. Now I am quite the fan of the bandage-wrapped undead.
So what does any this have to do with knitting? Well, the earliest known knitted items were found in Egypt (see History 101 by Julie Theaker in Knitty Spring 2006) and mummies were wrapped in linen bandages made from handspun, handwoven linen yarn, carefully crafted by the women of Egypt. In fact, everything from clothes to bed sheets and ship sails was made from linen spun on a drop spindle and woven by hand. The enormity of this endeavor is beyond my comprehension, enough so that it almost convinces me that space aliens must have helped the Ancient Egyptians build their amazing civilization.
Spinning Flax into Gold
Linen yarn and fabric is made from fiber from the flax plant, and is more absorbent and mildew-resistant than cotton. Depending on the age of the plants harvested and the process used to create the fiber, linen can be strong enough to make ropes or soft enough to make baby clothes. It requires virtually no pesticides or herbicides to grow successfully, resulting in very enticing yarns to those of us who are concerned about the environment. (Over 50% of the chemicals used in farming in the United States are used on cotton.)
The fiber strands in the flax stalk are called the bast. The interior of the stalk is a woody pulp called the hurd. To separate the fiber, the stalks are retted, or left lying in the fields to start rotting. Sometimes the plants are placed in a stream or water to speed up the process. (Commercial manufacturers may use chemicals to break down the fibers instead of natural dew or water retting.) When the surface of the stalks has softened, the stalks are washed to remove the outer surface. Then, they are pounded with a brake, an advanced version of the one invented by Thomas Jefferson, to separate the bast from the hurd. The bast is combed and wrapped into balls — similar to balls of wool roving — for spinning.
Flax is easiest to spin when it is wet. For hand-spinning, the fibers are held on a distaff, above the spinning wheel, to keep them neatly arranged and make them easily accessible to the spinner. Traditionally spinners used spit to control the flyaway fibers. Today water or spinning oil is substituted on commercial spinning equipment.
Today we use a wheel to spin flax into linen yarn, but the process has not changed much since ancient times. Tomb paintings show the ancient Egyptians processing flax and spinning linen on a top-whorl drop spindle.
While even the oldest knitted items found in Egypt date back only to 1000 AD, the earliest linen cloth found is 3,000 years older, dating from the Old Kingdom — the period when Imhotep was alive — and flax was known to be grown in Egypt as early as 5,000 years ago in the Early Dynastic Period, just after the Upper and Lower Kingdoms joined to form the unified Egyptian empire.
Flax and linen were so important to Egyptian culture, they were considered gifts of the gods, and were mentioned in literature and songs, such as this hymn to the Nile god, Hapi, probably written between 2025-1700 BCE:
Lightmaker who comes from the dark,
Fattener of Herds, might that fashions all,
None can live without Him, people are clothed with the flax of His fields.
Thou makest all the land to drink unceasingly, as Thou descendest on Thy way from the heavens.
Hapi, the thousand raindrops becoming river.
He whose face is too ponderous for stone.
The waters flow. Papyrus and lotus spring up.
In Your barque sailing from city to city, Your body glistens like water.
Early linen cloth was usually kept in its natural color or bleached white. The bleached fabric became a symbol of purity and light for the Egyptians, and was used extensively in religious rituals such as wrapping mummies. The fabric was also sometimes used as a form of currency and as a display of wealth.
According to the British Museum, Egyptian linen was spun and woven into four basic types of fabric: royal, thin, fine, and smooth.
Smooth cloth was the coarsest and thickest, used for working clothes, cloaks and blankets. The middle two categories were for finer clothes, worn by the wealthy. Royal linen was reserved for royal burials and ritual clothing, sometimes donated to temples by the king.
Tips for Knitting with Linen
Knitting with linen is very much like knitting with cotton yarn. The yarn has little or no give, and you may find that you need to go down one or two needle sizes from the size you would normally use for wool yarn of the same girth. If you have a problem dropping stitches, wooden or bamboo needles will help keep the stitches from sliding around as you knit.
Linen, like cotton and silk, has no “memory” and doesn’t retain its shape the way wool does. Edgings in garter stitch and seed stitch will work better than ribbing, which will not be elastic when knit in hemp. Make sure you knit to gauge, because you can’t change the size of t he pieces during blocking as much as you can with wool.
Unwashed linen on the cone can be harsh on your hands. If you purchase linen on the cone, skein it and wash it first, then rinse the skeins with fabric softener. You can also beat the wet skeins against a picnic table or other outdoor furniture to soften them up, then hang the skeins to dry out of direct sunlight. Washed linen, sold in skeins, is easier to knit with. It has a softer hand, and drapes beautifully.
Caring for Linen Garments
Linen can be machine washed and dried, but hand washing fine knitted garments will keep them looking new and crisp longer. Linen, however, holds its shape better than cotton and will not stretch out of shape over time. As you wash your knitted linen items, they will become softer, but the fibers will not weaken.
– Knitting Designer Donna Druchunas –