with Di Kendall
Linen may well date back before 4000 BC when Egypt had one of the first recorded linen industries. It has long been valued for its beauty, strength and comfort, being used for undergarments and bedding as well as outer clothing. Hence the term 'linens' referring to household textiles, tablecloths, t-towels, etc. It's a cellulose, natural fibre made from the stem of the flax plant. Flax is also grown for its seeds which are made into linseed oil. The best quality flax is grown in Belgium, Ireland and Italy, however it is grown in a number of European countries. It is only called linen after it's been processed and is the most familiar of a number of fibres known as bast fibres made from the inner fibrous stems of plants. Others include bamboo, hemp, jute, nettle and ramie.
Linen is an expensive fibre to process into yarn. Its a staple fibre, meaning short lengths, varying from 25cm to 150cm long. The longer fibres are used for finer more expensive cloth. Fabrics made from linen usually have a distinctive natural slub in the weave.
Production of Linen
Flax seeds are sewn in late spring and the plant produces blue, white or purple flowers. It's essential that the stems are kept intact when it's harvested in late summer and the leaves and seeds are removed first.
Retting This breaks down the pectin that holds the stems together and is a natural rotting process. Flax stems can be spread out in the fields, soaked in a dam, pool or large vats of warm water before being crushed by large rollers. The process can be sped up by using caustic chemicals, but this can affect the strength and colour. There are significant developments to use enzymes to make this process more environmentally friendly.
Breaking and scutching continues to separate the fibres from the stems and squeeze out the water.
Combing aligns the long fibres and separates out the short fibres.
Spinning the short fibres are spun and made into coarse heavy fabrics. The long fibres are formed into slivers that go through warm water to remove any gum and pulled into thinner rovings that are spun into yarn and used for fine linens.
Scouring is a cleaning process to prepare fabric for dyeing.
Bleaching Linen has a natural colour ranging from ivory to tan. Pure white is achieved by bleaching. Which also makes the fabric more absorbent and more receptive to dye.
Calendering the fabric gives it lustre by passing it through two rollers that move at different speeds creating friction.
Beetling Also adds lustre by passing the fabric through a machine that hits it with wooden hammers.
Properties of Linen
Absorbency Linen is more absorbent than cotton and dries quickly. It is 20% stronger when wet and can absorb 20% of its weight before feeling wet. It has better wicking properties than cotton making it really comfortable summer clothing and open weave fabrics allow even better cooling.
Strength Linen is very strong, almost 3 times stronger than cotton and almost as strong as silk.
Shrink resistance There is very little shrinkage.
Resistance Linen copes well with high temperatures, although it will scorch if an iron is left still for too long. It is naturally antifungal, antibacterial, dust-resistant and stain resistant. It isn't damaged by ultra violet light making it good for curtains and upholstery.
Sustainability It is a renewable and sustainable fibre.
Susceptibility Perspiration can cause discolouration.
It creases easily as it has no elasticity and is naturally stiff, this also makes it unsuitable for knitting as it doesn't form loops easily and it doesn't drape well. Knitted linen is blended with other fibres to give more resilience.
If it's regularly pressed in the same place the fibres can split and crack, this means edges of garments will eventually break down.
Although it accepts dye well it does fade with repeated washing and attracts mildew if left damp.
Flammability as it is a cellulose fibre it burns easily with a yellow flame and smells like burning paper, leaving a grey ash.
Linen softens with frequent washing and develops a soft rumpled appearance with frequent wear. It's often blended with other fibres to make it cheaper and to help to reduce creasing.
Shopping For Linen
Linen is available in a wide range of weights from very delicate to super heavy for upholstery. Very high thread count(the number of threads per inch) and Jacquard weaves are best for household textiles, whilst looser plain weaves are better for garments.
Lightweight 80-140 gsm for shirts, blouses and dresses, however light colours are see through and dresses might need lining. The very lightweight is very sheer.
Mediumweight 140-200 gsm for lightweight jackets and trousers.
Heavyweight 200+ gsm is better for more structured jackets
Gsm = grams per square metre.
Linen is quite a course weave and garments really need sewing with a sewing machine, although an overlocker can be used for seam finishes. It frays easily so cut edges are best finished with an enclosed edge. A French seam is great for fine handkerchief linens, but felled or overlocked finishes work better on medium weight cloths. For heavy weight fabrics an open seam with a Hong Kong binding using a fine fabric is best. During construction press with high heat and steam.
Caring for Linen
It can be washed at high temperature. It can handle a very hot iron and is stronger when wet, so best ironed after washing before it is fully dry and hung to air dry. Linen can withstand the highest temperature on a domestic a iron which can enhance it's lustre.
Most Bamboo fabric available in the UK doesn't fit into this category as it is usually chemically regenerated.
Some bamboo is mechanically manufactured directly from the plant stems and is sometimes called Bamboo linen. It grows really quickly and is a renewable resource. It's mainly grown in China and Asia, but mainly manufactured in Switzerland by Litrax. The natural fabric uses fibres removed from the stem by retting. It's used in clothing as it's a good insulator, has good wicking properties, very absorbent, lustrous and soft.
Bamboo charcoal is incorporated into fabric to make it highly absorbent, antibacterial and antifungal. Burning the plants to make charcoal produces nano particles that are embedded in fabric.
Jute is manly used for things like rope, carpet backing, hessian and scrim. It's very strong, renewable, decomposes and is recyclable. This makes it good for plants as they grow as it provides a natural mulch as it decomposes.
Although hemp is a source of narcotic drugs most varieties have negligible content so can be grown more easily. It was the main textile grown in Europe before cotton took over. It's not often used in garment making, but is used vehicle insulation and animal bedding.
Although nettle is mainly used course fabrics and fishing nets it can be used to create extremely fine garment textiles. Mainly grown in Nepal and Tibet it produces three harvests per year and is a strong, renewable fibre.
Ramie is available as a garment fabric and also known as Rhea and China grass. It's very similar to flax/linen but not so lustrous.