From Seed to Loom: An Overview of Neolithic Linen Manufacture
A general explanation of the steps involved in the planting, harvesting, processing, spinning, and weaving of Neolithic textiles. An accompanying narrative provides the reader with a sneak-peak into the life of an early-Neolithic woman, Aneha (which means Blossom in her hypothetical language), a member of the Linear Pottery Culture living in a small tribe near modern-day Mainz, Germany in the year 5500BCE.
She is a young adult woman living with her family in a tribe near a small stream on the land which would one day become Mainz, Germany. Her culture would one day be known for its distinctive pottery artwork giving it the name, Linear Pottery Culture. The majority of linear pottery culture people likely had dark hair colors, such as brown, as well as brown eyes. While their skin tone was much lighter than the Mesolithic tribes indigenous to Europe, it would still be darker than the modern skin tones of Europeans from the same area. Aneha’s father is from the Linear Pottery Culture, while her mother is from a small hunter-gatherer Mesolithic tribe, accounting for her even darker than normal skin. Her mitochondrial DNA haplotype is I2 while her father’s Y-DNA haplotype is G2a. Her height would have been average for a Neolithic woman, about five foot even.
Her tribe consists of about 100 people broken into a dozen family units. Her tribe lives in large rectangular wooden buildings known as longhouses, each made of wooden poles with thatched rooves and daubed wattle walls. The tribe is nestled in a clearing abutting a forest but within walking distance of water. There are several small slash-and-burn fields only a few minutes walk from the village allowing for crops to be grown. Wheat, peas, and flax are the three major crops her tribe grows, while other tribes in the surrounding area grow other crops more favorable to their locations. The local tribes trade among one another. This trade, as well as the intermarriage between tribes, known as exogamy, help maintain the peace between their peoples. This is important as Neolithic tribes were known to have had conflict and war.
What is Linen?
Linen is the name given to the textile material derived from a plant called flax. While technically any textile material derived from flax may be called linen, string and yarn of the flax plant are often called merely flax string or yarn, while woven textiles are generally called linen. Along with wool, nettle and other fibers, flax made up a major percentage of textile production in the Neolithic due to its ease of growth, versatility of use, softness and strength, not to mention the wide range of climate the plant can endure. Samples of linen have been found throughout various prehistoric settlements spanning much of Europe.
Linen in the Neolithic – The Tunic Myth
Popular myth depicts Neolithic people wearing complex and well made, woven linen, cotton or woolen clothing. This myth can be seen in dioramas at museums and in popular media. Interestingly, there is no body of evidence which supports this depiction of the Neolithic. The rationale behind this misconception is elaborate and likely comes from many different avenues of misinformation compounding upon themselves. Perhaps an unwillingness to depict Neolithic people wearing leather as it might seem too similar to Mesolithic clothing or perhaps a simple misunderstanding of the notion that just because people can do something does not mean that people will do something. The second point is analogous to early predictions that people in the 21st century would fly in rockets and flying cars merely because we had technically developed the technology for both by the early 20th century.
The Neolithic period comprises a wide range of locations spanning thousands of years. As a result, the clothing worn in the Neolithic was diverse. For much of the Neolithic, the mainstay was likely leather and fur, much like the previous Mesolithic period. Leggings, loincloths, long shirts, boots, and similar garments were very likely worn. During the middle to late Neolithic, woven textiles may have begun to appear in limited quantity. The problem for modern archaeology is the lack of evidence. Clothing does not hold up well to time and the only clothing we have usually comes from burials where a person’s clothing may not reflect everyday wear.
Flax grows in a wide range of environmental conditions and soil types, perhaps explaining its wide distribution throughout Europe and Asia. Flax should be planted in the early spring, as soon as the ground thaws and becomes workable. In Neolithic Europe, this would have probably been March or April. Cultivation of flax probably began with people merely gathering the wild growing plant. After a time, people began planting the seeds to control the planting and harvest of flax.
Early Spring 5500BCE, a woman casts flax onto a field
For Aneha, the act of sowing flax was more than just an exercise in agriculture. The night before the planting, her family had gathered in the fields for a ritual to the Goddess of the soil and the Sun God in the hope of gaining their aid in a successful harvest. As she sowed the seeds, the ritualistic paint from the previous night’s invocation remained on her skin, a reminder of how close her people were to the land.
Aneha walked through the small slash-and-burn field by her village casting flax seeds into the cool March soil. She placed her finger deep into the soil each morning to see if the soil remained frozen or if it had become workable. The flax could tolerate some cold and even a minor freeze, but not too much. Aneha knew that the earlier she planted the flax, the better the harvest she would get. The soil was precious, and the act of clearing land for farming was extremely laborious. Every piece of soil used for flax was not used for wheat, so she did her best to make the most out of every single plant. She wore leather shoes, leather leggings, leather breechcloth and a leather shirt to keep warm in the crisp March morning. Barefoot would be best, but the cool dew would quickly freeze her feet.
In times past, her people merely harvested locally growing flax, but at some point in the past, her people began collecting the seeds and sowing them much the same way they did wheat. It was the middle of the Neolithic period, and Aneha and her people were beginning down the long path of agriculture which would see the rise of entire kingdoms and cultures. These future thoughts did not occur to the young woman as she walked through the cool morning air casting seeds. On her mind was a beautiful shawl she hoped to wear for the harvest festival before it became cold again.
From sowing until harvest, flax takes about 100 days to grow. Flax tends to be harvested during the summer as a result of its early spring planting, though harvest times can vary due to the date of planting. Once the plants are about a meter in height with their green stalks beginning to yellow, it is time to harvest. If the flax is harvested too late, the fiber will be course and not as useful for making clothing. Harvesting was performed by hand in the Neolithic – It was a laborious task requiring a large number of people and much time.
Summer 5500BCE, a woman harvests flax in a field
Aneha worked in the early morning with the rest of her family and relatives harvesting the flax sometime in mid-June. The work was quite labor-intensive on the back, as it required constant bending. The heat made all but a simple leather skirt or loincloth intolerable, and sometimes less than that. Their only comfort was a gentle breeze which blews through the fields. The mornings were the most tolerable with the work stopping when the Sun approached its midpoint and resuming the next day.
Off in the distance, her cousin stood guard with a bow yew-wood bow and obsidian tipped arrows. Violence between the tribes was uncommon, but conflict did occur on occasion. Raids to steal grain, supplies and even women were not as uncommon as she wished. She had even heard stories of entire tribes being massacred. Knowing that her tribe was rather large and protected by people like her cousin helped put her mind at ease.
She bent forward grasping the plant at its root and midpoint, gently pulling it out of the dirt as opposed to cutting it. The more of the plant which survived being pulled, the longer the fibers she could harvest from it. Aneha knews that only a foolish person cut flax. Wheat is for cutting; flax is for pulling. She laid the flax that had she pulled in small bundles which were then collected by some of the younger children and taken off for processing.
Care had to be taken to avoid snakes, overheating one’s body, getting a severe sunburn or being bitten by a spider. One also had to have an ample supply of flat rocks sitting around which could be draped across the harvested flax if a sudden summer storm appeared, to prevent it from being blown away. As intensive as the work was, Aneha knew that this was only the second of several steps in the long road to creating linen.
At its most basic, processing of flax requires at least five significant steps, though modern processing techniques are more complex and require more substeps.
1. Rippling: After being harvested, the flax seeds are removed in a process called rippling. In Neolithic times, this probably was done by hand, though it is possible a comb made of bone or wood might have been used. Merely picking the seeds with one’s fingers and beating the plant against the ground can accomplish this.
Aneha and her family spent a short time before bed each evening pulling the seeds from the ends of the flax they had harvested that morning. The seeds could be crushed and used as a food crop, and the small amount of oil which came from this process could be used in a multitude of crafts, though beeswax was more often used given its easier harvesting. The seeds would be taken outside during the hotter part of the following day and cast into the wind allowing the worthless chaff to be blown away and the heavier seeds to fall, a process called winnowing.
2. Retting: Flax is placed in a thatched pattern across the pond and weighed down with sticks and rocks for several weeks. This process allows the natural organisms in the water to break down much of the outer portion of the flax plant and separate the inner fibers from the woody portions which will later be removed. Retting is often performed in a pond, though flax can also be placed in a stream or even allowed to ret in the field where it was harvested using natural dew, depending on the climate.
3. Breaking: Dried flax is laid in a pile where it can be beaten with a wooden club. The club breaks the woody outer portion of the flax making it more easily separated from the fiber inside. Many different methods of breaking exist, but fundamentally they all involve beating the flax with a club of some variety.
4. Scutching: The broken flax is laid against a tree stump with part of the flax hanging over the edge of the stump. A wooden paddle slices perpendicular to the flax, literally tearing the woody outer portion off from the fiber. This job can be performed by hand, but it is massively sped along using a scutching paddle.
5. Hackling/Heckling: Flax is pulled through a wooden or bone comb to remove woody pieces or other unwanted material. Given the thickness of the tines of the wooden or bone combs, it is safe to assume that heckling in the Neolithic required much manual intervention to extract the best flax.
That night, Aneha’s mother carefully raked a bone comb through the flax. The comb had three tines delicately carved from a pig’s rib bone. She sang a tune as she hackled the flax, freeing the fibers from any remaining woody pieces and debris. Aneha’s younger sisters helped her mother assemble the hackled flax into long bundles for spinning.
The spinning of flax can be achieved by any means which provides a twist to a group of flax fibers. In the early part of the Neolithic, this may have been done by merely placing flax fibers against a bare leg and using the palm to roll them while holding one end of the fibers causing a twist. While this would have been useful for making small strings of short length, it was not usable for making the long continuous strands of string required for woven garments. Neolithic people used spindles, a single straight piece of wood with a clay, wood or stone flywheel allowing it to spin. Spinning the spindle with one hand provided the twist to the fibers while allowing the other hand to continuously feed more fibers, called drafting, into a continuous length of a spun fiber.
The spindle seen in the image below is called a “Top Whorl” spindle, meaning the flywheel, called a whorl, is on the top of the spindle. In all likelihood, a bottom flywheel version, called a “Bottom Whorl” spindle, was probably much more common at the time. It looks the same as a top whorl spindle, but flipped upside down and is usually a little longer.
It was mid-August and the nights were hot as Aneha sat before a small cooking fire listening to her family and relatives laughing and telling jokes. In her hand, she held a nearly finished spindle of flax she had spun. That year’s flax had a very long staple length, the length of the fiber, and was very easy and very quick to spin. Now and then she reached across her knee and dipped her fingers into a small clay bowl of water. Wet her fingers helped with spinning fiber better than dry. A crackling fire in front, the beautiful starry sky above, friends and family eating and talking, Aneha felt at peace as she spun. She hoped that one day she would have a child she could teach to spin flax with her. There would be many young men at the harvest festival, and she hoped that all of her efforts would provide her with an eye-catching reward – a garment none could ignore.
While variations of weaving have likely existed since long before the Neolithic period, the Neolithic is generally credited as the beginning of any significant weaving. Weaving involves interlocking strips or strands of material and a sort of interlocking lattice. Basketry, textile weaving and even constructing fishing nets are all examples of weaving, though the term “weaving” usually refers to textiles. The act of weaving textiles typically involves a frame which holds thread in place, called a loom, while the threads are interlocked.
The most commonly discussed type of Neolithic* loom is the warp weighted loom, a form of weaving loom where the vertically hanging strings, called the warp, are held taut using weights, typically made of clay or rocks. One half of these warp strings are pulled apart from the other strings, specifically every other string, allowing a horizontally moving piece of thread to pass through them. This opening, called a shed, is then closed securing the horizontal string, called weft, in place. Once this operation has been performed, the alternate set of strings are then pulled apart in the same manner allowing the horizontal string, called the waft, to be pulled back the other way. This pattern is repeated over and over until a piece of cloth is made. One could simply maneuver the string in and out of each hanging vertical warp thread, but it is much easier to pull all of the strings apart making a space in between them, the shed, in a single operation.
*Other types of looms likely existed, but there’s little evidence of them. The reason is that looms are typically made of wood which rarely survives in a state that it can be identified after thousands of years. The warp weighted loom has both holes in the ground where the loom posts are laid, as well as loom weights themselves which provide some insight into the operation and configuration of the loom. We know that Neolithic people typically made small sections of cloth, perhaps a few inches wide and a few feet tall. These could be connected to one another to make larger garments. One of the reasons for this limitation was simply the impracticality of making a large garment when so little resource could be dedicated to the production of flax and the various processes required to make it usable.
It was mid-September as Aneha knelt before her warp-weighted loom carefully weaving each row of weft. Creating a shawl was hardly a typical project, but she was sure she could complete it before the fall festival in only a few days time. She dedicated evening and night to her goal. If she could make an eye-catching outfit for the fall festival, perhaps someone from a neighboring village would take note. Most people found their future spouses during the spring fertility festival, so her unexpected display would be sure to catch the other women in her tribe unprepared. As she weaved, she thought about a new life in a new place with anticipation as her shawl slowly changed from imagination into an actual textile. Some of the elders would likely not appreciate her using a fall festival in this way, but one had to find a way to stand out. Aneha was a crafty person.
The Ritual Shawl – A Linen Textile
Neolithic textiles were often simple stripes of cloth, not large panels. Their simple plain weave designs, called tabby weave, were often supplemented with simple linear designs fashioned from the interplay of differently colored yarns in a checkerboard pattern. Towards the end of the period, more complex weaves could be found, though the actual number of recovered fragments and evidence for them is scarce, at best. Likely, lengths of cloth would be sewn together to make a larger panel, such as a shawl or skirt. Given the likelihood that leather and other materials were more often used in clothing than woven textiles, through at least the early and middle parts of the Neolithic, one can only speculate how early-neolithic textiles were used. Perhaps rituals or status?*
*Before the advent of science when the world was still a frightening place governed by unseen forces and unrealized properties, religion and ritual dominated human society serving as humanity’s first mechanism and attempt to explain the unknown. While we do not know the details or the frequency of religion and religious practices within Neolithic society, we can be reasonably confident that they both existed and served an important role within the society. This can be ascertained by the countless religious artifacts and sites which have been discovered throughout the Neolithic world. Besides an explanation to satisfy people’s curiosity for how the world worked, rituals probably served other functions as well, such as the demarcation of time, such as a person reaching adulthood, or perhaps the facilitation of inter-tribal marriage, known as exogamy.
Using a method of comparative cultural reconstruction, we can imagine the elaborate nature of Neolithic religion. By the examination of other cultures of similar capability and experience, it is not that big of a leap to expect music, massive fires, feathers and paint, and other such lively decoration. Religion was not merely based on a fear of a deities wrath or some reward in an afterlife; it was the determination of whether the crops would grow or if a child would be born healthy. With both the perceived benefit of the graces of a higher power as well as the cultural benefits of exogamy and cultural integration, we can assume rituals were probably of extreme importance, and likely much work was put into their preparation and execution.
Aneha stood on the outskirts of the dance area having just arrived. Her body was painted from head to toe in red ocher and black wood ash paint in a linear fashion, similar to the pottery her people made (Aneha is a member of the Linear Pottery Culture). Her hair had been rolled up into buns with large osprey feathers sprouting in every direction. She wore a bear claw necklace around her neck and a beautiful handmade string skirt around her waist made from a braided flax belt and nettle fiber strings, made similarly to flax. While upper garments are not typical at such events, she decided to wear her beautiful handmade flax shawl showing off both her personality and uniqueness, as well as her skill with the loom. Many others would wear paint and some jewelry, but few would be so elaborately painted or wear something as well made and exotic as a linen shawl, a look one might expect to see at the spring fertility ritual. As she approached the fire, all eyes turned her direction. Luck was with Aneha as she caught the eyes of many young hunters from neighboring tribes, not to mention the glares from a few of her peers. Sometimes, one had to outshine the competition.
-Linen | Definition of linen by Merriam-Webster. 1 Aug 2018. Merriam-Webster; August 4, 2018 https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/linen