Material series V: Lush Linen
It has become increasingly difficult to figure out which materials are more sustainable than others. I naturally prefer natural materials however it doesn’t necessarily mean they are better for the environment and then there is the social and ethical aspect as well to consider.
During a conversation with a friend recently and after having discussed the sustainability challenges related to polyester, bamboo, conventional cotton and organic cotton, she asked me: so how about linen? And since I don’t really own a lot of linen, I didn’t really know too much about it. So, I felt compelled to find out what the story of linen is all about and I must say, I was pleasantly surprised with what I've learned.
Where does Linen come from?
Linen is made from the fibres of the flax plant. Flax is a plant that grows worldwide and grows well on relatively poor soil. Flax requires a small fraction of the water that cotton requires, and uses very little fertilizer if any.
Flax is grown in many parts of the world, but the best quality flax is primarily grown in Western European countries and Ukraine. In recent years, bulk linen production has moved to Eastern Europe and China, but high-quality fabrics are still confined to niche producers in countries such as Belgium, Ireland and Italy.
Flax is also extremely versatile. Every part of the flax plant has traditionally been used to create a worthwhile product – nothing is wasted, and production is cost effective. A common by-product of flax is Linseed Oil, which is great for wood preservation, especially in varnishes. And I’m sure you already know the health benefits of flax seeds, yes it comes from the same plant! Who knew!
This seems to be a good start, right? Sadly, linen is only approximately 1% of the world’s apparel fibre consumption. Why is this so, you ask? Because of the laborious time it takes to produce linen yarn, and the manual processes that have to be undertaken, linen has become a higher priced commodity and considered among many to be a ‘luxury’ fabric.
Beautiful Benefits of Linen
Linen is actually one of the most biodegradable and stylish fabrics in fashion history.
It is strong, naturally moth resistant, and made from natural fibres, so when untreated (i.e. not dyed) it is fully biodegradable. Its natural colours include ivory, ecru, tan and grey.
Linen generally has a cool touch which makes it perfect to keep you feeling fresh on those hot summer days. It absorbs moisture without holding bacteria.
In fact, it is actually stronger when wet than dry and becomes softer and more pliable the more it is washed. It just gets better and better!
Linen is relatively easy to take care of, since it resists dirt and stains, has no pilling tendency, and can be dry-cleaned, machine-washed or steamed and has only moderate initial shrinkage.
A Rich History
Linen appears to be one of the oldest textiles in the world. Fragments of straw, seeds, fibres, yarns, and various types of fabrics dating back to about 8000 BC have been found in Swiss lake dwellings.
Linen was sometimes used as a form of currency in ancient Egypt. Egyptian mummies were wrapped in linen as a symbol of light and purity, and as a display of wealth.
Many European cultures have formed traditions of handing down linen bed-sheets as heirlooms. Unlike cotton, linen that’s been well cared for can last for up to three decades.
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 made from 25% linen and 75% cotton.
Currently, researchers are working on a cotton/flax blend to create new yarns which will improve the feel of denim during hot and humid weather.
Admittedly, there are a few downsides to linen.
Number 1: it can be so crinkly! Ironing vigilance is necessary unless you decide to embrace the crinkled look with full confidence, which can also work.
Secondly, you should be aware that a constant creasing in the same areas can lead to tearing in the material as well as colour fading.
Lastly, because of the dense nature of the fibre, to get a pure white linen, it has to go through a heavy bleaching process. Sticking to its natural-toned hues will ensure a more environmentally friendly garment afterlife.
I clearly need to make linen more top of mind when shopping and since I’m not a great fan of ironing I’ll just have to own the crinkly version :-)
Curious to hear about your experience with linen! Leave a comment below or send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org.