The discovery of dyed flax fibers in a cave in Georgia dated to thirty-six thousand years ago suggests that ancient people used wild flax fibers to create linen-like fabrics from an early date.
In ancient Mesopotamia, flax was domesticated and linen was first produced. It was used mainly by the wealthier class of the society, including priests. The Sumerian poem of the courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi , translated by Samuel Noah Kramer and Diane Wolkstein and published in 1983, mentions flax and linen. It opens with briefly listing the steps of preparing linen from flax, in a form of questions and answers between Inanna and her brother Utu.
In ancient Egypt, linen was used for mummification and for burial shrouds. It was also worn as clothing on a daily basis; white linen was worn because of the extreme heat. The use of linen for priestly vestments was not confined to the Israelites; Plutarchwrote that the priests of Isis also wore linen because of its purity.
Linen fabric has been used for table coverings, bed coverings and clothing for centuries. The significant cost of linen derives not only from the difficulty of working with the thread, but also because the flax plant itself requires a great deal of attention. In addition flax thread is not elastic, and therefore it is difficult to weave without breaking threads. Thus linen is considerably more expensive to manufacture than cotton.
There is a long history of the production of linen in Ireland. The Living Linen Project was set up in 1995 as an oral archive of the knowledge of the Irish linen industry, which was at that time still available within a nucleus of people who formerly worked in the industry in Ulster.
In December 2006, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed 2009 to be the International Year of Natural Fibres in order to raise people's awareness of linen and other natural fibers.