Linen is one of the world’s oldest fabrics. The history of linen is not well documented but goes back thousands of years. Linen has always been used; people grew flax in their garden plots, so it may have just been that it was taken for granted. Evidence of seeds, fibres and fabrics have been found in a Swiss lake dwelling about 8000 BC. In Egypt mummies were wrapped in linen. Linen has sometimes been used as a currency.
Due to exceptional coolness, absorbency and freshness in hot weather it is valued as a quality fabric for garments. Linen is not limited to just clothing, it can also be used for towels, bags, napkins, tablecloths, bed linen, soft furnishings and curtains.
How Linen Is Made
Linen is woven from the fibres of the flax plant Linum Usitatissimum. The flax plant is difficult to grow compared to cotton as it requires a great deal more attention. The plant is harvested, seeds removed and the fibres loosened by crushing the plant, thus removing the woody part of the stalk. Short fibres are combed away leaving the longer linen fibres which can range up to 6” (150mm) long. They are first spun into yarn, which is then woven into fabric. Whilst only the very best fibres are used to make fabric, no part of the flax plant is wasted; the left over linseeds, oil, straw and fibre are used in everything from lino and soap to cattle feed and paper. Few products are so efficiently used as flax.
The production of linen fabric uses five to twenty times less water and energy than the production of cotton or other synthetic fabrics. Since linen has little to no chemicals and is a completely natural resource, it is perhaps the most ecologically sound fabric. The fabric is even biodegradable and recyclable.
Linen tends to be more expensive than cotton as it is more difficult to weave and harder to grow the flax plant.
Weights and Quality
It comes in many weights, the lightest being handkerchief linen, the heaviest being linen suiting. Linen’s natural colour ranges from ivory, ecru tan or grey. Pure white is created by bleaching. The quality of the linen fabric is highly dependent on the growing and harvesting of the plant.
A characteristic often associated with linen yarn is the presence of “slubs”, or small knots that occur randomly along its length. These are actually defects associated with low quality. Contemporary trend in the decorative furnishing industry is to deliberately include the slubs as part of the aesthetic appeal, nothing that they do not compromise the integrity of the fabric. It is best to therefore carefully check these before purchasing fabrics. The finest linen has a very consistent diameter with no slubs.
I love linen, I have some old favourite dresses which get more and more comfortable the older they get. Linen gets smoother, softer, and finer the more it is washed. It can be machine-washed, requiring much less care than silk or cotton. It is important to check the garment’s care instructions – avoid machine washing if it is not advised as the material might not have been pre-shrunk before being sewn.
It should be laid flat to dry, to help prevent wrinkles. If you iron linen, then it should be done while the material is damp.
It can attract mildew which weakens the fabric, so it should be dried thoroughly after washing and before storage.
It will also shrink the first time it is washed, as do most natural fabrics. It is essential to preshrink linen before you start to cut. Buy extra fabric, as you will lose some due to shrinkage.
Benefits and Detriments
It is one of the strongest of the vegetable fibres, 2 to 3 times stronger than cotton. Linen is also one of the few fabrics which is stronger when wet.
Unlike cotton, linen is less affected by heat, withstanding high temperatures. It is a great material for use in places where sun exposure can be high; unlike other materials the colour dye doesn’t fade easily.
Linen is highly hygroscopic absorbing moisture more quickly than any other fabric. When linen fabrics are in contact with the skin, the nodes along the length of the fibre absorb perspiration, then swell and release the moisture to the outside air. It can absorb up to 20% of its own weight in moisture while still feeling dry to the touch, explaining why linen cloth always feels fresh and cool as the fabric it self cools using evaporation. Because of it’s water absorption, linen is quite easy to dye.
Linen has a tendency to wrinkle. It has rather poor elasticity, even if it has been given a wrinkle-resistant treatment. On the plus side, linen presses easily. Since it creases easily, it can be given a crease-resistant finish (tebilizing) or can be blended with poly.
Despite it’s tendency to wrinkle, it is a very crisp fabric; thus it doesn’t have a nice smooth drape. Paper made of linen can be very strong and crisp, which is why the United States and many other countries print their currency on paper that is made from 25% linen and 75% cotton. Constant creasing in the same place in sharp folds will tend to break the linen threads. This wear can show up in collars, hems, and any area that is iron creased/folded.
Linen is almost lint free, non-static, non-allergenic, naturally insect-repellent and gives UV protection. It sheds surface dirt and resists stains. It does not accumulate static electricity – even a small blend of flax fibres (up to 10%) to a cloth is enough to eliminate the static electricity effect.
The fabric is also more lustrous, as well as being cooler, more absorbent and quicker to dry. Its lustre is due to the natural wax content, which also gives linen a smooth surface.
A good tip is to press your fabric before preshrinking; it sets the formaldehyde, and helps keep wrinkling down.
The fabric really does tend to fray. Before you pre-wash, it would be a good idea to serge the raw edges. As you make your garment, it would also be good to serge the seams and any other raw edges.
Did you know?
Fine white linen is worn by angels in the Bible.