Linen is a textile made from the fibres of the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum. Linen is labor-intensive to manufacture, but when it is made into garments, it is valued for its exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather. Linen (or flax) is one of the oldest fibres besides wool and is the strongest of the vegetable fibres and has 2 to 3 times the strength of cotton.
The word “linen” comes from the Latin word for the flax plant, “linum”, and the earlier Greek “linon”. Textiles in a linen weave texture, even when made of cotton, hemp and other non-flax fibres are also loosely referred to as “linen”. Such fabrics generally have their own specific names other than linen; for example, fine cotton yarn in a linen-style weave is called Madapolam. The collective term “linens” is still often used generically to describe a class of woven and even knitted bed, bath, table and kitchen textiles. The name linens is retained because traditionally, linen was used for many of these items.
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 which date back to about 8000 BC have been found in Swiss lake dwellings. Dyed flax fibres found in a prehistoric cave in Georgia suggest the use of woven linen fabrics from wild flax may date back even earlier to 36,000 BP.
Linen was sometimes used as currency in ancient Egypt. Egyptian mummies were wrapped in linen because it was seen as a symbol of light and purity, and as a display of wealth. Some of these fabrics, woven from hand spun yarns, were very fine for their day, but are coarse compared to modern linen. Today linen is usually an expensive textile, and is produced in relatively small quantities. It has a long “staple” (individual fibre length) relative to cotton and other natural fibres.
Linen is labour-intensive to manufacture. The selection of optimum quality flax fibre has traditionally been done by hand, which makes the process costly, but with enviornmental benefits. The production of linen commonly uses agricultural chemicals and in particular, fertilizers and herbicides to control weeds. For top quality fibres, the climate must be very moist but mild. As irrigation is not normally required, the environmental impacts associated with water consumption, pollution and build-up of salts in soil are avoided. Bast fibres like linen grow well on land unsuitable for food production and may help recultivate soils polluted with contaminants such as heavy metals.
Features of Linen Fabric
Naturally creamy white to light tan, this fibre can be easily dyed and the colour does not fade when washed. Linen does wrinkle easily but also presses easily. Like cotton, it can also be boiled without damaging the fibre, 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. Linen has poor elasticity and does not spring back readily.
Many products are made of linen: apron, bags, towels (swimmers, bath, beach, body and wash towel), napkins, bed linen, linen tablecloth, runners, chair cover, men’s and women’s wear.
Organic linen refers to linen that is made from plant fibres where the plants have been grown without the use of toxic pesticides and fertilizers.