September 03, 2020

All About Linen

By Carson Eddy
All About Linen

Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant, "Linum Usitatissmum". It has been used for over 10,000 years to make everything from artist canvas to clothing, to bedding, to tableware.  Egyptians used linen for its durability to wrap mummies and Medieval knights wore linen shirts and breeches under their armor for comfort and protection.

Over the centuries, the term "linens" was used to describe a range of household goods including bedding, towels, tablecloths, and napkins.  In some cases, these items were not made of linen, but the description became universal.  The term "lingerie" is also derived from the word linen.

Linen is highly absorbent

The flax fiber, from which linen is made, is hollow and absorbs moisture well — to be precise, it can absorb up to 20% of its own weight in water before starting to feel damp. Since these characteristics are important for towels, bath linens, bedding, and clothing linen is an excellent material choice for these items.

Linen is breathable

Besides absorbing moisture well, linen is able to release it quickly. The flax plant is hollow allowing for higher air permeability, thus linen fabric dries out quickly and doesn’t stick to the body. Linen is also a natural insulator meaning it keeps you cool in the summer and retains heat from your body in the fall and winter.

How Linen is made

Linen was one of the first plants domesticated by humans and has lasted well into the 21st century due to its unmatched natural properties.

Cultivated primarily in cooler climates all over the world – from Western Europe to India and Pakistan – flax plant has a growing cycle of only 100 days. However, the journey from the humble flax seed to woven linen fabric is a laborious and complicated process, which explains why linen is considered a luxury textile and comes at a higher price point than cotton.

Linen is typically planted in March and harvested in July. At the peak of the growing season, the ephemeral sky blue blooms of the flax plant cover the entire field for one day only.

Once the bloom is over, the flax plant is harvested but unlike most other crops, it cannot be mowed – flax has to be pulled up by the roots to maximize the length of the fibers and preserve the full potential of the plant, which will later be used to make a variety of different products.

Harvested flax then goes through a process called "retting", which means exposing the flax plant to moisture to separate the fiber from the stem. The flax is soaked in water until existing bacteria break down the pectin holding the fibers together. This is a risky process because under-retting burdens the separation of the fiber while over-retting weakens the fiber.

After retting, the plant goes through another process called "scutching" that separates the woody stem from the raw flax fibers. The resulting short coarse fibers are called "tow" and are used to make paper, twine, and rope. The long flax fibers are called "line" are used to create linen yarn that is woven into clothing, bedding, and other high-quality textile products. 

Linen is often stonewashed for maximum softness. The stone washing technique involves washing the new linen fabric with stones, usually, pumice or volcanic rock for a couple of cycles until the fabric becomes soft and supple. Today an enzyme wash may be used in place of actual stones to achieve the same effect.