Today, Egyptian cotton is renowned and exported worldwide for its superior quality. There is however, no evidence supporting the cultivation of cotton in Ancient Egypt. The earliest records of the existence and use of the crop in the region (Nubia, specifically) date back to the Roman era, and are scarce.
Ancient Egyptians relied nearly solely on flax for all things textile, and this since Prehistoric times, with garments made of linen found dating back to around 5000 BCE. Sturdy, quick to dry and perfect for withstanding the heat, linen was used in most aspects of Ancient Egyptian day to day life. Egyptian linen was therefore produced in large quantities to cater to domestic and foreign needs: it had the same kind of reputation Egyptian cotton has today, and therefore represented one of the country’s main exports, making flax the most important non-food crop grown in the Kingdom.
Although flax was not native to Egypt (some believe it to have been imported from the Levant), the Nile allowed for the perfect conditions for its cultivation. The flax seeds were sown in mid-November, right after the annual flood. The harvest began around 3 months later: the stems were pulled out – not cut – in order to get as much fiber as possible. They were then left to dry in the sun in bundles. Once dried, the seeds were removed and the plants were prepared for spinning. They were retted, beat and scutched to separate the hard outer banks from the fibers, who were then twisted and rolled into balls and coils. These were spun and finally weaved. It was rare, at the time, to dye fabric.
There existed three different qualities of linen which depended on the age of the plants at the time of harvest. When harvested young and green, a fine linen was produced. The second batch was slightly older and made for a sturdier cloth. The last and oldest one produced a very coarse linen. The use of the textile therefore depending on its quality: from clothing to ropes, through bedding, furnishings, bags, sailcloth, fishing lines, nets, slings etc. The coarseness of the cloth was also indicative of class, or social standing, as only the wealthy could afford to wear clothing made from linen produced from the youngest plants’ fibers.
The use of linen was, however, not limited to the needs of the living. Ancient Egyptians recycled old clothes and sheets to make the linen strips used for mummification. Fine linen was also among one of the offerings made to the dead at the time.