Linen is a flax-based textile that is predominantly used for homeware applications. While linen is similar to cotton, it is made from fibers derived from the stems of the flax plant instead of the bolls that grow around cotton seeds.
Garments made of linen are desirable in hot and humid climates. Unlike cotton, which tends to retain moisture for a significant period of time, linen dries quickly, which helps reduce heat retention in overly warm conditions.
Manufacturing linen, however, is much more time and resource-intensive than making cotton, which has led to a steady reduction in popularity of this fabric that began with the invention of the cotton gin. Nevertheless, the unique desirable attributes of linen have prevented the total cessation of global production of this textile, and certain countries, such as China, continue to make linen in reasonably large quantities.
History of Linen
“Before we proceed, it’s important to clarify the difference between the phrases “linen” and “linens.” While “linen” is used to refer to the flax-based fiber that is commonly used in homewares and certain forms of apparel, “linens” is a phrase that people use to refer to certain kinds of household items and apparel but may be made from fibers other than flax fiber. The phrase “linens” dates back to a time in which almost all underwear, bed sheets, and towels were made from linen, but these days, this anachronistic phrase can sometimes be confusing.”
While evidence is scant from prehistoric times, it appears that Neolithic peoples in Europe were making textiles from linen as long as 36,000 years ago. Therefore, linen is one of the longest-produced textiles, and its history may stretch back even farther than the most ancient evidence that modern archaeology has uncovered.
The next piece of historical evidence of linen use comes from ancient dwellings that were built on Switzerland’s lakefronts around 10,000 years ago, and according to archaeologists, linen was first domesticated in ancient Mesopotamia. While the use of linen for garments in Mesopotamia was mainly reserved for the ruling class, the use of linen in Ancient Egypt was much more widespread.
Due to the Egyptian climate, it was necessary to devise apparel that resisted the sun’s rays and allowed rapid sweat cooling. Since linen is naturally white, this fabric was an obvious choice, and its breathability and lack of moisture retention rapidly caused it to become the most popular and valuable textile in Egypt.
In fact, the Ancient Egyptians sometimes used linen as a bonafide type of currency. This fabric was also used to make the burial shrouds and wrappings for mummies.
The Ancient Greeks used linen to make garments and homewares, and the Phoenicians later introduced linen production to Western Europe. However, historical records suggest that there was no effort on behalf of European powers to regulate flax production among farming communities until the 12th century AD.
Later, Ireland became the center of European linen production, and by the 18th century, the town of Belfast became known as “Linenopolis” because of its thriving line trade. Linen remained popular throughout the colonial era, but as cotton production became cheaper and easier, the central role that linen used to hold within Europe’s textile economy gradually diminished.
These days, linen is primarily a niche product that remains in production to manufacture a handful of textile products. Despite its rich history, linen is no longer in vogue due to the laborious and time-intensive processes used to make this fabric. Ironically, production difficulties originally disincentivized linen production thousands of years ago; while the challenges facing line producers today are quite different than they were in antiquity, this fabric remains finicky and expensive to produce.
“How Is Linen Fabric Made?”
The constituent material for linen fabric is the cellulose fiber found in the stems of linen plants. Like the stalks of many similar plants, linen stalks consist of a woody, reedy interior section and a fibrous, stringy exterior section.
To prepare for linen production, manufacturers of this fiber start by separating flax fibers from the woody interior of flax stems. Traditionally, this step has been accomplished by soaking raw flax stalks, but these days, manufacturers may use chemicals to achieve the same effect. Before flax fibers are spun into yarn, these chemicals are washed away, but residual toxic substances may remain on chemically-separated flax fiber.
Flax plants are ready for harvesting after about 100 days of growth. Since flax plants do not tolerate heat, they must be planted in the cooler part of the year to avoid crop death.
These days, flax seeds are usually sown with machines. Since flax plants don’t effectively prevent the incursion of weeds, herbicides and tilling are generally used to prevent reduced yields in flax crops.
Once flax stems are yellow and their seeds are brown, these plants are ready to be harvested. While it’s possible to harvest flax by hand, machines are usually used for this process.
4. Fiber Seperation
After flax stalks are harvested, they are processed through a machine that removes leaves and seeds. Then, manufacturers separate flax’s fibrous outer stalk from its soft, woody interior. This process is called retting, and unless it is expertly accomplished, the delicate flax fibers used for textile production could be damaged.
Next, the decomposed stalks are broken up, which separates the unusable outer fibers of flax stalks from their usable inner fibers. To accomplish this step, the flax stalks are sent through rollers that crush them, and then rotating paddles remove the outer fibers from the stalks.
Now that the inner fibers are separated from the other fibers, they can be combed into thin strands. Once the fibers have been combed, they will be ready for spinning.
Spinning of flax yarn used to be accomplished with a foot-powered flax wheel, but these days, flax producers use industrial machines for this process. To spin flax fibers, these short, combed fibers are connected with devices called spreaders, and the resulting strings, called rovings, are then ready to be spun.
After being spun on a spinning frame, the resulting yarn is reeled onto a bobbin. To ensure that flax yarn won’t fall apart, it’s necessary to perform this reeling process in wet, humid conditions, and the spun yarn is run through a hot water bath to further ensure yarn cohesion.
Finally, flax manufacturers dry the finished yarn and reel it onto bobbins. The yarn is then ready to be dyed, treated, and made into apparel, homewares, or other types of textile products.
“How Is Linen Fabric Used?”
Historically, linen was one of the world’s most popular textile products. From Ancient Egypt to Renaissance Ireland, many cultures used linen as their predominant source of apparel and homeware fiber.
These days, linen is used for many of the same purposes that it was used historically, but this fiber makes up a drastically smaller percentage of the global textile market. Additionally, many of the original applications of linen, such as shirts and pants, have largely been replaced with cotton.
In hot climates, however, linen is still used to produce everyday clothing in large quantities. People living near equatorial regions can benefit from linen’s high moisture-wicking but low moisture-retaining profile, and the natural white color of this fabric inherently reflects heat-inducing solar rays.
Manufacturers can use linen to make practically anything commonly made from cotton or wool. For instance, this fabric can be used to make shirts, pants, dresses, skirts, jackets, blazers, vests, and a wide variety of other casual and formal wear. Additionally, linen is still a popular material for lingerie and underwear, and it’s also commonly used in nightgowns and dressing robes.
Outside the realm of apparel, linen remains popular as a homeware material. It’s especially common to find napkins and tablecloths made from linen, and while cotton is more popular for towels these days, it’s also possible to find hand towels, kitchen towels, and bath towels made from linen.
Bedding is another arena in which cotton has all-but supplanted linen, but it’s still possible to find linen pillowcases and sheets. One advantage of linen in bedding is this textile’s durability; it’s possible to achieve higher thread counts in linen than in cotton without encountering durability issues. One of the lone industrial applications of linen is in the production of canvases for painting.
“How Much Does Linen Fabric Cost?”
Data on the price of unprocessed linen yarn per pound are not available, but prices of woven linen fabric fluctuate between $5 and $12 per yard. At these prices, linen is one of the most expensive natural fibers in the world, but it is incontestable that linen remains highly in demand for specific niche applications.
“What Different Types of Linen Fabric Are There?”
While all types of linen fabric are derived from processed and spun flax fiber, there are four main variations in weaving techniques that result in different types of linen fabric:
1. Damask linen
This type of linen is ornate and delicate, and it is formed on a jacquard loom to produce an end result that’s similar to embroidery. Damask linen isn’t designed for everyday use, and it’s more common in decorative items.
2. Plain-woven linen
Plain-woven linen is commonly used to make dish towels, cotton towels, and hand towels. Since it is relatively loosely-woven, it is highly durable, but it doesn’t suffer from a significant decrease in durability.
3. Loosely-woven linen
Loosely-woven linen is highly absorbent, but it is the least-durable type of linen fabric. It is commonly used to make reusable diapers and sanitary napkins.
4. Sheeting linen
Linen apparel is usually made from sheeting linen due to its untextured, soft surface and close weave. This type of linen usually has a higher thread count than other forms of linen fabric.
“How Does Linen Fabric Impact the Environment?”
The main environmental concern regarding linen production is the release of chemicals used in the retting process into surrounding ecosystems. Most commonly, alkali or oxalic acid are used to separate flax fibers from the woody interior of flax stems, and while chemical retting of flax is undeniably faster and more efficient, both alkali and oxalic acid are toxic in relatively low concentrations.
Therefore, water retting of flax stems is preferred for environmental reasons, and to be certified as organic, it’s generally necessary for flax fiber to be water-retted. Since flax is already such an expensive fiber, however, water retting simply compounds on this increased cost to make organic flax less accessible to most consumers.
In addition to concerns over the release of toxic chemicals into the environment, there may also be land use concerns over flax production. Specifically, most cultivation processes used to grow flax degrade soil, which can lead to soil erosion and expansion of agricultural lands into neighboring wilderness areas.
Furthermore, most textile production around the world is inhumane. The vast majority of textile workers are essentially slave laborers who are forced to endure horrific working conditions for insufficient pay. As a result, the ability of linen workers to contribute to local economies is diminished, and stewardship of the land takes a backseat to the pressing day-to-day struggle to survive.
Overall, however, linen is one of the least environmentally damaging textiles. Unlike synthetic textiles, natural fabrics like linen are biodegradable, which means that their constituent molecules reabsorb into the surrounding environment within a matter of years instead of centuries. Natural fibers also don’t contribute to the ongoing microfiber pollution crisis in the hydrosphere, which threatens aquatic and human life.
If linen is cultivated in accordance with proper stewardship of the land, it is not environmentally harmful. To meet the global demand for linen products without incurring prohibitive overhead costs, however, the majority of linen producers choose to use inexpensive processes that may be environmentally damaging.
Linen Fabric Certifications Available
A variety of linen fabric certifications are available to ensure that linen fibers are produced with sustainable and responsible means. For instance, linen is eligible for organic certification by both the United States Department of Agriculture and the European Union’s organic certification program as long as it adheres to the standards for organic agriculture imposed by these organisations.
Another independent organisation, OEKO-TEX, certifies the safety of linen used for a variety of consumer applications. OEKO-TEX does not provide organic certification; rather, it merely confirms that there are no toxic substances present in linen products intended for the end consumer.