Linen: Old But Gold

October 20, 2021

linen, cup of tes, green leaves

Linen – the oldest fabric we know

The story of linen, as widely believed, started in Egypt some 10,000 ago. Recent evidence from prehistoric caves in Georgia, however, suggests that the textile may have been used by ancient people more than 35,000 years ago.

And yet, let’s stick to what we know… In the land of the Pharaohs, linen was used for clothing (including burial garments for mummies), currency, and home decorations. People loved wearing it mainly due to its ability to remain cool in hot weather conditions. It was also preferred by farmers, as it didn’t take much effort to cultivate. Linen is made from the cellulose fibres inside flax’s stalks. It doesn’t require significant amounts of water and is genuinely easy to take care of. Back 10,000 years ago, the annual flooding from the Nile provided enough water and nutrients to the flax crops in ancient Egypt, which required solely intermittent watering in the next 3–4 months.

Then came the Greeks with the first written evidence of linen appearing on the Linear B tablets of Pylos. Later, it was the Phoenicians, who brought flax and its byproduct into Ireland. Soon, Belfast turned into the most famous centre for linen production, with the majority of the world’s linen being manufactured there during the Victorian era.

Not surprisingly, linen, which according to the Bible is what angels wear, is also part of different religious concepts. For instance, the Jewish faith restricts its combination with wool. The divine textile is also mentioned in the Bible’s Proverbs 31.

The production process

Linen production hasn’t changed much over time. The process starts with threshing — the removal of seeds. Many farmers don’t wait for the seeds to develop as the lack of seeds keeps nutrients inside the plant and increases its value. The second step is retting — the removal of the fibre from the flax’s stalk. Different methods exist, all of which require specific amounts of water:

  1. Water retting is the most widely used method and produces the highest quality fibers. Bundled flax plants are left in water (preferably stagnant). The process takes anywhere from a few days to a few weeks.
  2. Tank retting is usually the fastest as the water is completely stagnant. Large cement tanks are used because the acidic waste from the plants is quite corrosive for metal surfaces. The process usually takes up to a week. A disadvantage is that the remaining wastewater can be harmful to both humans and animals.
  3. Dew retting is the preferred method when it comes to sustainability. Flax stalks are left on flat turf and through the combination of air, sun, and dew their stems dissolve within 2 to 3 weeks. The quality of dew-retted fibers is poorer, however.

After retting, the fibres are left to dry. The remaining wood from the stems is then removed and the short (low-quality) and long (high-quality) fibres are separated through combing or heckling. Now the fibres can be turned into yarn and beautiful fabrics.


How eco-frienly is Linen?

Let’s go back to linen’s roots — flax, namely. The processing of flax is cost-efficient, requiring little energy and relying mainly on natural sources of water. At the same time, it is quite a versatile plant and its parts can be used in the making of different products (e.g. Linseed Oil, used for wood preservation and not only), thus leaving no waste. What is more, one hectare of flax can retain up to 3.7 tonnes of CO2, turning it into quite an eco-friendly plant that respects the environment and preserves the land. Additionally, it is a rotation crop and when swapped on land, it can improve soil quality. Nowadays, in Europe alone, there are nearly 200,000 acres of organic flax crops.

Examining linen itself… As a natural fibre (thus not artificially coloured), it is biodegradable and recyclable. Actually, recycled linen fabrics can find application in the production of paper and insulation materials for the car industry. Moreover, linen is quite resistant and durable, which naturally prolongs the life of products made out of it. Linen canvasses were used by some of the world’s most profound painters such as Caravaggio, Raffaello, and Donatello, whose artworks have been preserved in a brilliant state over time. This textile is also hypoallergenic, breathable, and acts as a thermoregulator, which even turns it into a healthier option for people.

Our view

Undoubtedly, linen is fashionable as the young, environmentally conscious consumers demand it, thus provoking the creativity of the fashion industry. Winter linen, denim linen, waterproof linen and many more innovative options are being developed through various digital techniques. Yes, modern linen is here to stay.

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