Have you ever played Timeline? Now imagine a card saying “How Old is Linen”. Ready? The correct answer is 9000 BC. Yes, that’s right. Woven linen fabrics from wild flax may date back over 10,000 years. It’s quite obvious that it is one of the oldest textile fabrics. Egyptians used the linen for mummification and sometimes linen was used as currency.
During the Victorian era, Ireland started growing flax and later Belfast became the most famous linen producing centre in history. Linen has been used for home and commercial furnishing items, bed and bath fabrics, from apparel items to industrial products. It was even used for books and for a type of body armour.
However, production and use of linen has changed drastically around 1990. During the 70’s only 6-7% of the world linen production was used for fashion fabrics, in comparison that number jumps to 65% in the 80’s. Around that time however the spinning machines and the large plantations of North America’s ‘Upland Cotton’ became much more affordable than the traditional linen techniques and cotton has become the most used fabric at the time.
Linen in the modern world
Back in the days Linen was considered as luxurious fabric and the same is relevant today. It’s simply because of the laborious time it takes to produce linen yarn and the manual processes involved.
Some people say the best linen is produced in Normandy, France – others claim the best linen comes from Ireland. I can’t really say which one is the best, but for me the most used one is the most comfortable one – due to the linen fabric getting softer with the time/ number of washes/ pressing etc. A lot of fabric mills are using enzymes to soften up the linen as if its natural undyed, it tends to be quite firm and scratchy (ideal for bags, but not really for clothing and bed fabrics). Some manufacturers are buying virgin linen and after sewing the whole garments they wash the units in special washing machines with enzymes and softener. And a lot of them are buying virgin linen and dye it in these special big barns.
How is it made and is it sustainable?
Linen is made from the cellulose fibers of the inner bark the flax plant. These fibers are called bast fibers and flax is one of several types of plants including hemp, jute, and raime, which produce them. Materials made from bast fibers have similar properties such as drying faster than either cotton or wool and being stronger when wet. This is probably a key reason why items such as rope and ship’s sails were made from bast fibers before modern synthetic materials were used. Turning bast fibers into yarns it’s quite difficult process though. They need to be separated from their woody stems and prepared for spinning in a multi-step process. The good side is flax is incredibly easy to grow and it requires very little water; most farmers let nature do the work. This means that over the lifetime of a linen garment it uses just under a quarter of the water that its cotton counterpart would. The top flax growers for textiles these days are Russia, France, Belgium, Belarus, Poland, and Lithuania, who export it mainly to China and India — where labour costs are lower and the skills are higher for the yarns to be woven.
Linen is considered as one of the most sustainable fabrics out there. The production of linen requires less water, no pesticides and fertilizers are used. Most parts of the flax plant can be turned into something useful. However, it’s a well-known fact that fast fashion linen is treated with chemicals and usually the dyes used in the process are not natural. Whenever you see a low priced linen garment, keep in mind that it might not be as sustainable as you would assume it to be.
When we hear Linen, automatically we consider it as sustainable. It’s a fabric which doesn’t need certificate as it’s natural fibre and as we already mentioned a very little pesticides or none are needed during the growing. Although I would definitely suggest to buy linen from a well-known sources and OEKO-TEX certificated factories.
"There is a reason good fabrics have a cost"
Overall – Linen is the “new” Cotton. It’s environmental friendly and if its coloured with natural dyes, with no chemicals used in the process - it can be considered as one of the most sustainable fabrics you can buy these days.
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