Linen fabric is made of natural fibers. Its fibers derive from the flax plant, also called Linum Usitatissimum. This is a Latin expression and means “most useful”. The name absolutely makes sense since linen is used for a variety of purposes such as furnishing fabrics, interior, and household textiles. The history of linen goes way back and the flax crop already exists for thousands of years. It was used by the old Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans. Linen fibers are hard to distinguish from hemp fibers since these are almost the same. Nice little fact: you can only see the difference when you make the fibers wet; linen rotates clockwise whereas hemp rotates the other way around.
Linen fibers are very strong, soft and durable. However, hemp fibers still appear to be 8 times stronger than linen fibers. The longer you wear linen, the stronger and softer the fabric becomes. The fabric has a comfortable feel and is highly moisture absorbent. Linen has the special property that it feels cool when the temperature rises and warm when the temperature lowers. The fabric wrinkles easily and is anti-bacterial. The fabric can also be easily recycled and is biodegradable.
A big part of the linen textile production takes place in Western Europe, in countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. Also, countries like Spain, Egypt, Russia, and China are big producers of linen fabric.
Flax crops grow very fast. Within 100 days the crop is ready to be harvested. The flax crops transform into beautiful blue and white flowers. The flower, however, blossoms only for one day. The cultivation of linen needs hardly any pesticides or fertilizers because the crops are rarely troubled by insects. The flax crop doesn’t need much and grows easily. From this point of view, the cultivation of linen has a minimum impact on the environment. However, the processing of linen fabric is a different story.
The cultivation of flax used to be highly labor intensive because flax needed to be unprooted instead of mowed. Nowadays there are machines which have taken over this job.
The cultivation of flax crops requires only a small amount of water, especially when you compare this with the cultivation of cotton. In general, linen grows very well without water irrigation systems.
Right after the harvesting of flax, the drying process starts and after that, all seeds will be removed. Then, the “retting” process starts. Retting is a process of a few weeks in which the pectin (this is a liquid of plant cell walls) dissolves. The pectin holds together the fibers but because of the retting process, the fibers are exposed. The retting process usually takes a few weeks.
Next, the “stripping and combing” begins. This mechanical process makes sure that the fibers will be separated from the straw and then cut into shorter fibers. The longest fibers are used for high-quality linen yarns. After that, these yarns are ready to be spun, woven or knitted into fabric.
Then, 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. The kind of processing methods and treatments determine the eventual environmental impact.
Linen fabric is easy to dye because its fibers are highly absorbent. Linen also keeps its color better compared to other textiles such as cotton.
Linen is a relatively expensive fabric since it is usually produced in smaller quantities. However, the costs also depend upon the quality of the yarns. Linen is usually more expensive than cotton, but cheaper than hemp.