Did you know that linen is one of the most requested fabrics here at Digifair? The textile is famous for its long-lasting strength - in fact, it is 30% stronger and thicker than cotton, and is even being used in paper money production! It is also water-absorbent and breathable, which adds cooling properties in the summer and warming during winter. Since it dries so much faster than cotton, it is antiallergenic and antibacterial.
Better yet, linen is a naturally sustainable fabric.
Its fibers come from the flax plant, representing less than 1% of the textile fiber consumption worldwide, mostly because it’s hard to compete with the price of synthetic options in the market. Even though recycled polyester and nylon fibers have already become more popular, natural fibers like linen could help to protect the local economy in some communities and be a greener alternative for some fashion designers. Know more about the fabric’s sustainable credentials below!
There are many species of the flax plant. The fiber used for linen comes from the blue flax (or prairie flax, Linum perenne). The flowers only last a few days. Image: courtesy of European Confederation of Flax and Hemp (CELC)
A Brief History of Linen
This fiber is one of the oldest known to man - it has been used in clothing since 8,000 BC and the earliest dyed flax fibers date back to 36,000 BC. This fabric has accompanied human history quite closely: it was popular in ancient Egypt, used as clothing and also as a burial fabric in which mummies were wrapped. The Phoenicians exported it to Europe between the 12th and 8th century BC, where the flax production tradition began in the continent. Linen was a popular choice for lingerie, shirting, handkerchiefs, and house textiles line tablecloths.
Greek linen embroidered dress with colorful silk from the 18th-19th century and a block printed linen by artist Rose Wallis (circa 1885). Images © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Its popularity decreased drastically in the last 50 years, according to the Millenium Ecosystem Assessment: in 1961, 2 million hectares were dedicated to flax production against 450,000 in 2000. In the same time period, global cotton production has doubled, and global silk production has tripled.
How Is It Sustainable?
France is the world’s largest producer of flax followed by Belgium (both countries concentrate 80% of the world’s flax production), Belarus, and China, according to the European Confederation of Flax and Hemp (CELC). Though it has Northern African origins, the flax plant has adapted very well to the European climate. Its sustainable credentials come mostly from growing the fibers since the flax plant requires little additional irrigation (rainwater is sufficient). Far fewer pesticides and fertilizers are used as well, especially when comparing it to cotton. To guarantee a better sustainable impact, look for certified organic products.
A French morning dress (1865–70) and the detail of an Italian linen dress with colorful wool embroidery (1725–40). Images: [left] Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of the International Business Machine Corporation, 1960), [right] The Metropolitan Museum of Art Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1993
Linen textiles are usually biodegradable and will degrade within 7 months. There’s very little waste in the making of the yarn: the linseed is used for the next crop, but it can also feed people and animals. The oil extracted from the linseed can be used in cosmetics and paint.
Why Is Linen A High-End Fabric?
Linen’s popularity and its fame as a luxury fabric might be connected to the care to prepare the fibers -- usually dew retting, which depends on nature to soften and free the fibers from the inner core, though water and chemical retting are also possible. What gives the fabric its strength -- hard and sturdy fibers -- is also what causes an increase in price: being inelastic, it becomes difficult to weave, breaking easily during the production process. Machines have to run at a slower speed to avoid breakage, and the quantity produced is, consequently, lower.
The flax plants have to be cut out and laid in the fields for dew retting. The process softens the stems, allowing the core to release the fibers. Image: courtesy of European Confederation of Flax and Hemp (CELC)
As mentioned earlier, 80% of flax fiber production is based in France and Belgium, so its production location can also make the price higher. Fibers are usually spun in Europe as well, but they also can be shipped to India or China for yarn production. When keeping the high life span and quality of linen products and its sustainability credentials, the textile is surely a good investment to make.
Innovations in Linen
Despite being a fabric used throughout millennia, the textile industry is still finding innovative uses for this fabric. Denim made with linen instead of cotton, for example, creates the typical indigo look with a focus on sustainability and even more resistance. Linen blends hold lots of possibilities as well: aloe vera, for example, keeps the fabric even softer and wrinkle-free, and silk and wool make it even more versatile throughout different seasons. Flannel finished linen, anyone?
Luxury fashion brands using linen for its comfort and durability: sleepwear from Desmond & Dempsey and shirts from With Nothing underneath, both from the UK
Are you thinking about sourcing linen for your future fashion creations? Sign up now and browse our in-stock linen offers or create your specific fabric request.