Fabric series: All about Linen

What is Linen?

Linen is a processed plant-based fibre derived from flax plants, also called Linum Usitatissimum. More than 70% of linen production is used to manufacture clothing.

Flax represents only less than 1% of all textile fibres consumed worldwide, although it is considered a precious high-quality product to wear.

200 years ago, linen was used more frequently. 20% of the clothes worn in Europe were made of linen. 

Its decrease in popularity is due to the advent of cotton and other synthetic textiles, which did not substitute linen for its qualities but for their relative affordability. 

🔺 Plant-based Fibres category and Quotas

Between the category of natural plant-based fibres, cotton is the second most important fibre in terms of volume, with a market share of approximately 24.4 percent of global fibre production. Other plant-based fibres include a diversity of vegetable fibres such as jute, kenaf, coir, flax, sisal, ramie, kapok, abaca and hemp. With a global production volume of around 6 million metres, the market share of these other plant-based fibres was around 5.7 per cent of the total global fibre production volume in 2018.

Where does Linen come from?

In 2009, a team of archaeologists discovered more than 34,000 years old flax fibres in a cave in the Republic of Georgia, which makes it one of the oldest fibres used by humans.

The flax plant has been cultivated in every country of the world but the majority of it (80–85 percent) is produced in Western Europe. The largest cultivations of flax in Europe are spread along a wide coastal band stretching from the South of Normandy in Northern France through Belgium and the Netherlands.

Also, countries such as Spain, Egypt, Russia, and China are big producers of linen fabric. 

Flax cultivation 

The flax crop is cultivated in cool, humid conditions and does not take long to grow. It transforms into blue and white flowers, and within 100 days they are ready to be harvested. 

As the crops are usually not effected by insects, the cultivation of flax needs low amounts of pesticides or fertilisers. It requires significantly less chemicals than cotton, but slightly more than hemp. 

Moreover, linen does not need excessive irrigation, and it is cultivated annually, having a positive effect on ecosystem diversity and on the quality of soil fertility. 

From this point of view, the cultivation of linen has a minimum impact on the environment whilst the processing phase of the fabric involves less chemicals. 

The harvesting and processing of Linen

According to the Textile Exchange Report of 2019, the global flax fibre production in 2018 was estimated at around 780,554 metres.

Flax is a bast fibre, which means it comes from the stem of a plant. To extract the fibres, the plants are either cut or pulled by hand from the ground. After the harvesting and drying process, the seeds are removed through a process called winnowing or ripping.

The important phase in which the fibre gets exposed is called retting. This is done by dissolving the pectins, that is a liquid of plant cell walls which holds the fibres together. 

Following, the “stripping and combing” begin. The longest fibres obtained from this mechanical process are used for linen yarns. After that, these yarns are ready to be spun, woven or knitted into fabric.

At the end, the linen yarns are ready to be dyed or bleached. Different chemical treatments can be applied to the fabric in order to give it special properties such as wrinkle-resistance. 

What is Linen used for?

The cultivated flax plants have two basic end uses: flax for fibre, which is the one used to make linen textiles and flax for seed, used as food for both people and livestock.  

Linen textiles have found many uses throughout its history: bedsheets, pillowcases, blankets, dish towels, bath towels, wallpaper, upholstery, skirts, shirts, suits, dresses, luggage, thread, aprons, bags, napkins, tablecloths and diapers are some examples. Due to its natural anti-bacterial properties, it is also a popular choice for bandages.

Humans have used linen for cloth since at least 8,000 BCE

What are the properties of Linen?

One of the most appreciated qualities of linen is that it will get softer as you wear it, over time. The durability of the textile is due to the fact that it is a strong fibre, two or three times stronger than cotton.

Because of its absorbency, linen fabric is easy to dye and retains the colour better, compared to other textiles like cotton. Thanks to this property, the fabric is available in many different nuances.

It is a breathable fibre, in fact, linens dry almost instantly as the itself cannot hold air or heat. The porous nature makes linen a popular fabric for the summer, to use for clothing or bedding. 

Linen fabric has little elasticity and it wrinkles easily. Using a high temperature for ironing and a touch of spray starch can get a smoother result. When the material is damp, wrinkles can be even more.

Linen can be washed in the washing machine. As well as for cotton, it has a tendency to shrink, so it is a good idea washing items in cold or warm water, or even dry cleaning if a sturdy result is desired.

Environmental issues

In terms of environmental sustainability, flax is often considered a preferred fibre with less harmful impact. The kind of processing methods and treatments determine the eventual environmental impact.

Why do we need Organic-Linen?

It is estimated that globally, less than 1% of linen is organically grown. According to the European Confederation of Linen and Hemp, around 0.5 percent of the flax grown in Europe is certified organic.

The Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibers gives to the non-organic linen a “C” rating, while organic linen gets an “A”, the top mark. It is indeed the most sustainable fabric you can use. 

But what is the difference between the two?

  1. Labour practices. It is estimated that more than 8 million households are involved in the production of natural plant-based fibres, apart from cotton. Indeed, the production of flax fibre requires a lot of hand labour that should be closely monitored to ensure good, fair, and safe labour practices.

  2. Chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Even if used in small quantities for conventional linen cultivations, organic linen is grown without synthetic fungicides, pesticides and herbicides in fields that are healthier for farmers, wildlife and surrounding communities.

  3. Naturally coloured. Removing linen’s natural colour and adding artificial colour can have harmful environmental impacts. Organic linen uses natural dyes and non-chlorine bleaches such as hydrogen peroxide, ozone bleaching (using ozone gas), or enzymes.

  4. Retting phase. Instead of involving chemicals or large quantities of water, organic linen is dew retted. That means it follows longer and slower natural methods to separate the fibre from the stalks. 

Buy good quality Linen and recycle it

Linen is biodegradable unless it is not over-treated with chemical dye, toxic chemicals or blended fibres, which are responsible for decelerating or inhibiting biodegradability. 

The recycling of linen works the same as for the other textiles, which means post-consumer or pre-consumer waste can be redesigned for reuse!

Comprehensively, to wear linen is a sustainable decision especially when you buy the best version of it, which is organic, that is designed for optimal biodegradability. 

Sources:

https://store.textileexchange.org/wp-content/uploads/woocommerce_uploads/2019/11/Textile-Exchange_Preferred-Fiber-Material-Market-Report_2019-1.pdf

https://www.thespruce.com/definition-of-linen-fabric-1976785

https://www.aestheticstories.com/linen-flax/

https://www.naturstoff.de/shop/en/Fabrics/Linen-Fabrics/900055/f.html

https://sewport.com/fabrics-directory/linen-fabric

http://www.mastersoflinen.com/eng/lin/1-la-filiere-de-proximite

https://study.com/academy/lesson/textile-properties-of-linen.html

https://cfda.com/resources/materials/detail/flax-linen

https://www.eileenfisher.com/organic-linen?country=DE&currency=EUR

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