Linen is the oldest known textile produced by humankind. It’s enduring appeal is based on its qualities as a strong, fine and naturally breathable fabric.
Commonly associated with commemorative tea towels and crumpled summer trousers, linen is a fabric that, albeit familiar, is largely underrated. Spun from the fibres of the flax plant, linen is the only industrial textile fibre native to Europe. Since the Ancient Egyptians began harvesting and weaving linen it has been prized for its fine but strong thread, its breathability, and has been put to a variety of different uses from mummifying the corpse of Pharaoh Ramses II and creating sails for Roman explorers to gracing the shoulders of the twelfth century religious elite in the form of ceremonial robes. But perhaps most impressive is linen’s environmental credentials: the water required to grow flax in its native environment is met naturally by annual rainfall, whereby 1 kg of harvested cotton requires an astounding 7,100 litres of irrigation water. Here we explore linen’s impressive credentials as a fabric that offers both utility and luxury to everyday living in an ecologically sustainable way.
How is linen made?
Linen is woven from the long, spun fibres of the flax plant, which is native to Northern Europe. Flax grows best in the cool, water-logged and nutrient-rich regions such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland where annual rainfall meets the flax plant’s irrigation requirements naturally and the thermal range is narrow. Flax plants reach maturity within 100 days between March and July during which time each flax stalk will flower for one day only with violet blossoms.
Harvesting Flax to Make Linen
Flax harvesting is particularly labour-intensive, which is why linen remained the preserve of royalty and the religious elite well into the 15th century. To protect the full potential of each plant, flax is never mown, but uprooted, a punishing exercise for any labourer and one which wasn’t taken over by mechanical grubbers until after the Second World War. Harvesting flax before it reaches maturity results in a softer, finer thread while growing it in harsh, dry climates like North America gives a more coarse and brittle texture, to which rope and sail making is more suited. In the nineteenth century Irish farmers quickly made a name for themselves producing very fine linen spun from prematurely harvested flax, although in doing so, they built an industry that was entirely reliant on imported seeds.
If matured fully, flax seeds are removed after the flax is stacked and left to dry, often in distinctive pyramidal hedges. The pectins in flax that bind the fibres together are subsequently broken down by exposing the flax to moisture in a simple process of spreading the flax out in fields and leaving it in the rain for several weeks on the same site it was grown.
Spinning Flax Fibres into Yarn
After having reduced flax down to its constituent fibres, harvested flax is mechanically separated, combed and graded by length, an indicator of the fibre’s coarseness: long lengths being finer and short length tending towards coarser. The fibres are carded and drawn out into ribbons of yarn that look like fine, blue-grey hair, before being spun according to their grade. Fine yarn is wet spun to lend it a smooth and shiny finish while short, coarser yarns are dry spun which results in an irregular and slightly fuzzy, or napped, finish. The metric number (Mn) of the fibre corresponds with the number of kilometers of yarn spun from 1kg of fibre, therefore the higher the textile number, the finer the yarn.
Weaving Linen Yarn into Linen Fabric
Linen lends itself to a variety of different weaves and until the 1950s most combination fabrics used linen as their base. The post-war enthusiasm for synthetic clothing and furnishing fabrics saw people choose artificial vibrancy of colour over the tactile and ecological qualities of linen. However, recent technologies have seen linen reemerge as the fabric of choice for designers with a focus on quality. Ultra fine yarns can now be knitted into more elastic and flexible fabrics such as linen-cashmere blends, and a variety of treatments including pleating, brushing and dévoré (a patterning achieved with lasers) are bringing linen into the twenty-first century.
Linen has a good dyeing affinity, requiring few resources to colour or bleach it, both of which are processes that can be handled in an environmentally responsible way, and remains both colour fast and retains its shape. Some of the pectin that binds the fibres together as the flax plant grows, is retained by the flax fibres making linen stiff and crisp to start with, and prone to wrinkling, but increasingly soft and strong as the amount of pectin gradually reduces over multiple washes.
The Qualities of Linen
Since flax fibres are hollow, linen fabric has insulating and heat-regulating properties that make it ideal for clothing in hot climates. It is hygroscopic, meaning it is highly absorbant and fast drying, and can absorb up to 20% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp. Being so fast drying, it resists microbial growth and is also resistant to moths. Linen has such a high tensile strength that, unusually enough, it increases when wet, making it highly stable and able to withstand a high degree of abrasion, pulling and weight without stretching or losing shape. Linen is also non-allergenic, making it suitable for surgical stitches.
Linen as an Ecologically Sustainable Fabric
Flax is a natural product that does not require irrigation when planted in its natural habitat, and needs little or no chemical treatment. All parts of the flax plant can be used: oil is extracted from flax seeds to create dyes, paints, cosmetics and floor coverings and the by-products of linen production are all recyclable, sometimes processed into a pulp for use in banknotes or fibreboard. The entire harvesting process is completed on site and the environmental impact of spinning and weaving flax into linen is similarly very low. Linen is one of few materials that is 100% recyclable and biodegradable; linen is a high quality material capable of producing beautiful products while remaining environmentally sustainable to produce.