Linen is a textile made from the fibres of the flax plant. Linen is laborious to manufacture, but the fibre is very absorbent and garments made of linen are valued for their exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather.
The collective term “linens” is still often used generically to describe a class of woven or knitted bed, bath, table and kitchen textiles traditionally made of linen. In the past, “linens” also referred to lightweight undergarments such as shirts, chemises, waist-shirts, lingerie, and detachable shirt collars and cuffs, all of which were historically made almost exclusively out of linen. The inner layer of fine composite cloth garments (as for example jackets) was traditionally made of linen, hence the word lining.
Linen textiles appear to be some of the oldest in the world: their history goes back many thousands of years. Fragments of straw, seeds, fibres, yarns, and various types of fabrics dating to about 8000 BC have been found in Swiss lake dwellings.
Flax is either hand-harvested by pulling up the entire plant or stalks are cut very close to the root. The plants are dried, and the seeds are removed. The stalks are then ‘retted’, a process which uses bacteria to decompose the pectin that binds the fibres together. The stalks are then ‘scutched’, a process of removing the woody portion of the stalks by crushing them between two metal rollers. The fibres are removed and combed to remove the short fibres. The remaining long, soft flax fibres are then spun into yarns and woven or knit into linen textiles.
Flax is grown in many parts of the world, but top 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 Ireland, Italy and Belgium, and also in countries including Poland, Austria, France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Britain and Kochi in India. High quality linen fabrics are now produced in the United States for the upholstery market and in Belgium. Russia is currently the major flax cultivating nation.
Some of the linen we have recently been purchasing has come from the oldest flax mill in Lithuania, who spin, weave and dye the linen. Their fabric ranges from lightweight gauze fabric to fabric suitable for table linen and curtains.
Linen fabric feels cool to touch, a phenomenon which indicates its higher conductivity (the same principle that makes metals feel “cold”). It is smooth, making the finished fabric lint-free, and gets softer the more it is washed. However, 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 during laundering. Linen has poor elasticity and does not spring back readily, explaining why it wrinkles so easily.
Linen fabrics have a high natural lustre; their natural colour ranges between shades of ivory, ecru, tan, or grey. Pure white linen is created by heavy bleaching. Linen fabric typically varies somewhat in thickness and is crisp and textured, but it can in some cases feel stiff and rough, and in other cases feel soft and smooth. When properly prepared, linen fabric has the ability to absorb and lose water rapidly. Linen can absorb a fair amount of moisture without feeling unpleasantly damp to the skin, unlike cotton.
Linen is a very durable, strong fabric, and one of the few that are stronger wet than dry. The fibres do not stretch, and are resistant to damage from abrasion. However, because linen fibres have a very low elasticity, the fabric eventually breaks if it is folded and ironed at the same place repeatedly over time.
Mildew, perspiration, and bleach can also damage the fabric, but it is resistant to moths and carpet beetles. Linen is relatively easy to take care of, since it resists dirt and stains, has no lint or pilling tendency, and can be dry-cleaned, machine-washed or steamed. It can withstand high temperatures, and has only moderate initial shrinkage.
Linen is much easier to iron when damp. Linen wrinkles very easily, and thus some more formal garments require ironing often, in order to maintain perfect smoothness. Nevertheless, the tendency to wrinkle is often considered part of linen’s particular “charm”, and many modern linen garments are designed to be air-dried on a good clothes hanger and worn without the necessity of ironing.
A characteristic often associated with linen yarn is the presence of “slubs”, or small knots which occur randomly along its length. Although often considered to be defects, slubs are considered as part of the aesthetic appeal of an expensive natural product. In addition, slubs do not compromise the integrity of the fabric, and therefore they are not viewed as a defect. However, the very finest linen has very consistent diameter threads, with no slubs at all.