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History

Flax is believed to be one of the most ancient agricultural crops. An archeological dig carried out at the site of Neolithic lake dwellings in Switzerland turned up charred remains of food prepared from flaxseed, and remnants of linen threads, ropes, cloth and fishing nets. So man had already been growing flax as far back as Neolithic times. Traces of flax cultivation relating to the Bronze Age were found in archeological excavations in Spain. However, most of the finds of early flax cultivation relate to the Iron Age. They show that perennial narrow-leafed flax was cultivated all across Europe as far as Scandinavia. Archeological excavations at the site of Iron Age settlements in Germany discovered remains of bread prepared from wheat, millet and flax seeds. Many archeological finds, literary records and linguistic studies also point to India, Khoresm, Turkmenistan, Asia Minor, Transcaucasia, Abyssinia, Algeria, and Tunisia as ancient flax cultivation areas.

Domestication of fibre flax to say nothing of seed flax occurred in India and China before that of cotton - more than 5,000 years ago. There is evidence that as far back as 3,000 - 4,000 years B.C. flax was grown for fibre in Mesopotamia, Assyria and Egypt where the finest linen cloths were spun. The ancient historian Herodotus mentions linen cloths where each thread consisted of 360 finest strands presented as a gift to Athena of Rhodos. Flax was extensively raised in Colchis that used linen to pay tribute to the Turks. According to one account, the voyage of Argonauts from Hellas to Colchis for the Golden Fleece was in fact prompted by a desire to obtain the secret of making fine flax yarn that was treasured as much as gold and was as good as that produced in Egypt.

Some scholars believe that flax originally came from western Persia and spread over to other countries regarded to be the regions of early flax cultivation - India, China and Central Asia and westwards and southwestwards, primarily, to Babylon and Egypt. Mummies wrapped in linen shrouds were found in the Pyramids dating from more than 5,000 B.C. (now exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum in New York). Egyptian priests wore clothes made of linen that symbolized purity of light and fidelity. Flax crop failure was thought to be equal to "seven Egyptian punishments".

There are grounds to believe that both ancient Romans and Greeks first brought flax from Egypt. The earliest mention of flax cultivation in ancient Greek and Roman literary records goes back to the 6th century B.C. The words lion (Greek) and linum (Latin) are encountered in the texts by Homer, Herodotus, Theophrastus and Pliny. Linen was used to make clothes, combat outfits, bed wrappers, sailcloth and cordage. It was also used as canvas in painting.

Gauls and Celts, the earliest flax growers in western Europe, learned about flax from Romans while Slavs, who were the first to start cultivating flax in eastern Europe, brought it from Greece. In the regions of early flax cultivation in Central Asia (Afghanistan, mountainous areas of Bukhara, Khoresm and Turkmenistan) flax cultivation had remained primitive until the turn of the 20th century.

Flax has been known in Russia since 2000 B.C. Ancient manuscripts of the 9th-10th century B.C. contain evidence of linen made by Slavs. Oriental writers of the time described Slavs attired in linen clothes. Prior to the formation of Kievan Rus, all Slavic tribes that inhabited the eastern European plain raised flax. Flax was used to make sailcloth, fishing nets, ropes and linseed oil. In the 10th-11th centuries A.D. flax was extensively grown for fibre and seed. It was regarded to be an important crop both for crafts and commerce. Peasants used it to pay feudal dues and make payments to the czar's treasury. Russian princes collected tribute in linen. In the late 19th-early 20th century Russia emerged as the leading producer and exporter of flax and linen among European nations.

On several occasions the advent of new, less labor-consuming fibres (cotton, viscose and other synthetic fibres) seemed to have put flax cultivation on the brink of economic ruin. But each time flax fibre production managed to survive and advance offering textile fabrics of high consumer properties owing to combining linen with new fibre materials.

Here are a few more interesting facts about flax fibre:

The famous Turin Shroud that bears the image of Jesus Christ and was used to wrap his body is spun from flax fibres. There is also evidence that the towel bearing Christ's image - Redeemer not painted by human hands - was also made of linen.

Prior to the invention of paper, manuscripts used to be written on linen. One of the most renowned manuscripts - the Linen Book by ancient Etruscans - was written on linen in the 7th century B.C.

In ancient Greece linen clothes were the privilege of high priests.

The great army leader Alexander of Macedon wore an armor made of . linen cloth to protect him in battle. It was said to be impenetrable to the foe's sword.

In ancient Rus linen clothes used to be worn on festive occasions. The first ever standard in Russia approved by Peter the Great was the one about linen.

Linen is the most ancient fabric known to man. For centuries people have been growing flax to make fibre and weave linen. But despite its venerable age flax remains to be as young as ever.