The colours of our stunning linen fabric collections seem to get a little brighter when illuminated by the rich history behind the fibre. As a bit of a history nerd, I am fascinated by this sturdy fabric that has managed to stay relevant through thousands of years, and I love how sustainable and eco-friendly it is. I hope after reading this post you will be equally enchanted by linen and the journey it takes from field to closet.
What is Linen Fabric?
You may or may not know that linen fibres start their life sheltered inside the woody stalks of flax plants. When spun and woven, these fibres create the sturdy, breathable fabric you know and love.
Linen garments are reliable as well as beautiful. They hold their shape wash after wash, and are pill-resistant. Coupled with its eco-friendly manufacturing process and versatile nature, linen is truly fantastic.
A Quick Look at Linen:
- Linen is antimicrobial– this fibre wicks away moisture before bacteria can build up
- Linen is one of the most eco-friendly fabrics available. It's biodegradable and made from the resilient flax plant, which can grow in poor-quality soil without any pesticides or chemicals and requires far less water than cotton.
- Linen is the strongest natural fibre in the world; its fibres are 30% thicker and stronger than cotton fibres
- Linen is highly breathable and heat-conductive, which will keep you cozy in the winter and cool in the summer.
History of Linen Fabric
Linen is actually one of the world’s oldest fabrics, with evidence of its use dating back to 6000 BC! Some of the most well-known evidence of linen in the ancient world can be found in Egypt, where it was used to wrap bodies for burial in hot, dry sand. This ritual not only preserved the bodies, but also their cloth bindings, securing a permanent place for linen in pop culture. Our mummy documentaries, horror movies, and even our cartoons are inseparable from the image of linen unwrapping from limbs of ancient historical figures and mythical creatures.
Linen found its place among the living, too. Due to a wide availability of this fabric in ancient Greece, layers of linen held together with natural glues were used as armour (called linothorax). Because it is moisture-wicking and dries much faster than cotton and other natural fibres, it has been a go-to choice for medical uses throughout history. Linen bandages protect wounds while still allowing for the skin to breathe and heal. Additionally, linen was easier to sterilize than other options, as the fibres contribute to bacterial resistance; linen wicks moisture away before it can become a habitat for bacteria.
The same features that make linen good for medical use make it great for clothing options! In the summer, linen wicks away sweat and helps conduct the heat away from your body. Long fibres help linen hold its structure over time while becoming softer and softer to the touch. Historically, this made linen perfect for undergarments, and (despite a significant lack of linen bra and panty sets in your local lingerie store) this practice is still reflected in modern language– “lingerie” and “lining” both originated from the word “linen”.
How is Linen Fabric Made?
So how do we get from sowing flax seeds to sewing linen pants, breezy summer dresses, and comfortable button-ups that stand the test of time?
Flax plants are harvested after about 3 months of growth; they are pulled from the root in order to maintain the full length of the fibres, which will help the finished fabric stay strong. The woody stems of the flax plant are then put through a process called retting.
During retting, harvested flax plants are laid out on fields or in pools of water in order to soak and loosen the outer bark, allowing access to the soft inner fibres. Fun fact: the natural colour of linen is determined by the sun, soil, and water that touches it during retting. Each batch of linen uniquely reflects the environment in which it began its journey.
If the flax is laid in a field, it can take up to three weeks to finish retting, as harvesters must rely upon the dew and sun to break down the outer bark. This process is significantly quicker when the flax is submerged completely in pools of water, as the water completely saturates the bark.
Once retting is complete, the linen fibres are dried and then separated from the rest of the flax plants with a method called scutching. The outer shells of the flax plant can be composted, while the soft inner fibres are collected, separated by length, and sent off to be spun into yarn. This yarn is then woven by machine or hand into beautiful natural linen.
From there, the linen is sold as is, or it can be dyed a variety of stunning colours.
Linen Fabric and Sustainability
Linen has many amazing qualities, but one of the most appealing is its sustainability. Flax requires less water than cotton to grow, and every bit of the flax plant can be used. These plants can grow well even in poor-quality soil, making it an ideal crop for areas which may not be able to yield other, less hardy plants.
Additionally, these plants are naturally resistant to insects and other pests, which means they don’t require pesticides to flourish. Linen can be made from start to finish with no chemical interference.
When a linen garment has come to the end of its life, it can be returned to the earth, as it is fully biodegradable. However, it is important to source linen from reputable suppliers who ensure that chemicals have not been used to speed up the retting process, which can weaken the fibres and contribute to pollution issues, as the chemicals must be disposed of after retting.
Our Core Collection Linen is created with flax plants grown in Europe, and is manufactured in a factory that runs exclusively on renewable energy. Our supplier is a participant in the Fashion Revolution movement, which fosters more transparency about working conditions in the textile industry, so these linens are made not just with the environment in mind, but also take into account the quality of life for every worker along the chain, from the flax farms to the finished fabric.
How to Care for Linen Fabric?
As with all fabrics, hand-washing is the most gentle on the fibres and will ensure the longest lifespan possible for your favourite garments. No need to worry if you don't have the time (or desire) to hand wash your clothes; linen is sturdy enough to withstand many machine washes. Your linen garments will be perfectly happy being washed in cool water, preferably inside out and without the company of jeans or other heavy garments.
They can be tumbled dry on low heat, or air dried from the comfort of a hanger or a drying rack. Linen will get softer and softer with each wash, all while maintaining its strength.
Types of Linen Fabric
Linen comes in different weights and can be blended with almost any other fibre, making it extremely versatile, and an excellent choice for so many projects.
- Lightweight linen is perfect for summer. The airy drape helps any garment move with the breeze, from summer dresses and light tops, to pool-side or beach-side swimsuit cover ups. You may sometimes see it referred to as tissue weight linen or linen gauze depending on the weave.
- Midweight linen comes with a little more structure than its lightweight counterpart, making it a great choice for warm-weather pants, as well as dresses, robes, and suits.
- Heavyweight linen is great for upholstery and home decor, but linens on the heavier side can also be used for sturdy bags, pants, jackets, and workwear.
Blending linen with other fibres grants some of the amazing characteristics of linen to the added fibre, resulting in a fabric with the best of both worlds. Linen blends are great when your perfect project requires a different property (such as drape, fluidity, or texture) than 100% crisp linen can provide.
- Cotton-linen blends are stronger than traditional cotton, as the long fibres of linen prevent the shorter cotton fibres from pulling out of the weave as quickly, giving it anti-pilling properties as well. Adding cotton to linen also helps reduce the pesky wrinkling 100% linen is known for.
- Linen and viscose blends, like the one we currently have in our shop, combine some of the moisture-wicking breathability of linen with the gorgeous, fluid drape of viscose. As with cotton, the addition of viscose to linen smooths out the stubborn wrinkles.
Chalk it up to a fascination with humanity and history, but I couldn’t be more excited about this ancient fabric and how it continues to weave its way through society— a common thread running through time, from our ancestors to us.
I know I'm planning on adding at least one linen piece to my closet this summer! How about you?