Flax in Ancient Egypt

Ushabti models making linen

Egyptian Name:


Flax was of huge economic importance to the ancient Egyptians, and was used to make ropes, mats, baskets, and linen (mnkht) clothing, sheets, sails, and bandages. The seed was an important source of oil, used for lamps, cooking, medicine, and as a base for pigments. Flax was seen as a gift of the Nile, as the Hymn to the Flood (Hymn to Hapi) puts it: "People are clothed with the flax of His fields."

Female dancers wearing girdles

In contrast to the Babylonians, Hebrews, and Assyrians, with their heavy, restricting, and concealing woolen robes, the Egyptians preferred light, airy clothing made from linen. Modesty was not a serious concern for either sex. Men often wore only a loincloth or kilt (schent, shendyt, or skent), a simple rectangular piece of linen wrapped around the lower body and tucked in at the waist. Older men preferred long, ankle-length kilts, while younger men wore short ones.

The typical clothing of men and women

Women wore sheer, transparent overcoats and skirts, or sheath dresses, often with shoulder straps, occasionally baring the breasts. This dress is generally depicted as being skin-tight, but in reality the dress was wrapped rather loosely.

Both sexes wore tunics, sashes, aprons, kerchiefs, cloaks, shawls, and detached sleeves. Female dancers, acrobats, and servants often were naked, wearing only their jewelry - usually a bead or shell girdle. Farmers, bricklayers, and fishermen worked partially or completely naked, and children did not wear any clothes at all until they came of age (12-14 years old.) The wearing of clothes held together by knotted belts was seen as an important step of the child to adulthood. Bare feet were usual, but sometimes sandals made of leather or woven papyrus or palm fibers were worn. The pharaoh often had sandals made of gold, which curled up in the front.

Heavily pleated linen, worn by the wealthy

The more wealth one had to pay for the making and upkeep of clothing, the more was worn. The clothing of the wealthy had elaborate drapes and pleats, and was often starched and bleached. Very little sewing was done - the cloth was often wrapped or draped around the body and held in place by a belt, a knotted cord, sash, pin, or a girdle. A man's status was confirmed by how elaborate his kilt was, and how fine was the linen used to make it. The kilts of some men were decorated with beads, or edged in gold. Wealthy men often wore ornamental pendants attached to elaborate belts.

Royalty wore the most clothing - capes, gloves or gantlets, shirts, socks, mantles, headcloths, robes (kalasaris), and scarves have been uncovered. Pharaohs also wore various crowns and ostrich feathers on their heads, and sometimes lion or bull's tails (symbols of power) were attached to their kilts.

King Tutankhamen was buried with over one hundred loincloths, kilts, tunics, and shirts, fifty shawls, and assorted belts, gauntlets, scarves, caps, kerchiefs, and headdresses. "Name tags" have been found on clothing - small embroidered marks with the name of the owner.

Priests wore white linen robes and a sacred leopard-skin. Soldiers donned protective leather overgarments, coats of mail, and padded helmets. Although colored linen was known since the Old Kingdom, the Egyptian people preferred plain white linen for everyday wear, reflective of the heat. Clothing was laundered by first soaking it in pottery tubs of cold water, then rubbed with natron in hot water. Laundry was then beaten with sticks on a large rock to clean it, rinsed, wrung out, and stretched to dry.

fashio2.gifColored patterns, mainly red, green, brown, pink, and yellow, were popular for festival clothing, especially in the New Kingdom. Blue was the traditional color of mourning, and was worn at funerals. Clothing decorations included embroidery, tassels, fringes, feathers, and intricate bead and metalwork. Popular patterns included stripes, rosettes, squares, checks, zigzags, chevrons, circles, and diamonds. Animal, sphinx, flower, feather, net, ankh, djed, and tapestry motifs were also popular.

The time and effort devoted to clothing shows that linen garments were often prized heirlooms. Mended garments found in the tomb of Tuthmosis IV displayed tapestry weaving bearing the cartouche of his father, Amennophis II, their original owner. Cloth was a valuable commodity, so valuable that ancient tomb robbers would often steal it in preference to items of stone or metal. Although rare, woolen cloaks were worn during the winter months. Sometimes clothing was made of gazelle or sheep leather, papyrus, hemp, or grass fibers, or mohair (goat hair) rather than linen. However, such fabrics were far from common or typical. Cotton was introduced from India late during the New Kingdom, and on rare occasions silk was imported.

Flax was harvested by pulling rather than cutting, steeped in water, and then sun-dried. The stalks were beaten by mallets on stone slabs, rubbed with natron, rinsed, then separated and cleaned by pulling them through a comb made of wood or bone. Egyptian yarn was spun by hand with a spindle, dyed, then woven on a loom. Women not only manufactured cloth, but oversaw its production - several women are recorded as overseers of the Per-Iriwt ("House of Weavers.") Making clothing and mummy bandages was high-status work, and women engaged in such activities could afford to build their own tombs. A document from Kahun shows that of 29 servants employed within a particular household, 20 were employed in weaving, reflecting the importance of clothing.

Linen worn in its natural colors
It was mainly women who did the work of making clothing, or among deities, goddesses - "The robe of Osiris is woven by the hand of Isis, spun by the hand of Nephthys. . ." Neith, who was known as a goddess of weaving and the domestic arts, was said to have woven the world on her loom. As the divine patron of weavers, the wrappings of the mummy were produced by the “weavers of Neith” - bandages were the "gifts of Neith." She was called the "Seamstress of the Cloth of Life, whose thread is gold, whose needles are fire."

Linen was sometimes worn in its natural color, a golden-brown or off-white with a yellow or pearl-grey tinge, but pure white linen was preferred, as white was thought to be the color of purity and holiness - the linen bandages wrapped around mummies were white for this very reason.

The Fiber and Oil Plants of Ancient Egypt

Other Materials