Linen - a choice for summer.

Do you know much about linen? It's probably the first fiber ever to be used in textiles. They say that there's evidence it was used by Neolithic peoples who lived around lakes in the Stone Age - they used it for fishing nets! How about that?

There's also evidence that the Egyptians used it for burial wrappings. It's amazingly resilient, as these wrappings were seemingly found in good condition.

Linen is usually thought to be a luxury fiber. It always has a cool, clean and crisp look whether woven or otherwise. It's a very careful job to process the fibers and keep them strong and beautiful looking.

Flax is the plant where the fibers live. They are held together by a sticky substance within the stem of the plant. The flax plant needs a cool, damp climate and deep, rich soil to thrive.

Flax is a very 'picky' plant. It likes soft, fresh water and very richly fertilized soil to produce the best linen fibers.

It takes about 3 months for the flax plant to grow and mature. They grow to between 2 and 4 feet tall, and have small blue, purple or white flowers. (The plant with blue flowers produces the finest fiber).

When the flax plants turn brownish they must be harvested quickly. The plants are carefully pulled from the ground so they don't snap.

It's a complex process to produce linen with many technical processes. Firstly seeds and leaves are removed from the stems. Bundles of stems are soaked in water to loosen the 'gum' which sticks the fibers together.

This process is called retting. It is a delicate process. The stems must be soaked to just the right point or the fiber will be weakened or difficult to remove.

Wet flax plants are dried in fields, then when they're dry they are crushed between metal rollers - this is called breaking. This separates the woody stalk pieces (shives) from the fibers.

Scutching separates the broken woody pieces from the fibers.

The hackling (or combing) process straightens and separates the fibers. The fibers are then (wet) spun together forming yarns, which we all know and love.

Linen is usually blended with other fibers for yarns, as alone it would be too stiff to work with. When blended it takes on more of the characteristics of the fiber with which it is blended.

Linen does not dye well at all. It has to be bleached first to allow the fibers to accept color, which in turn weakens the fibers.

Here are some more interesting facts about this natural cellulose fiber...

  • 2 - 3 times stronger than cotton, only silk is a stronger natural fiber
  • not elastic - the least stretch of the natural fibers
  • stiff and wrinkles easily, but it can be treated with wrinkle resistant finishes (can crack and break with repeated creasing)
  • great for summer clothing as it allows heat to escape
  • absorbs moisture better than cotton and dries quicker (hence linen handkerchiefs and teatowels)
  • washes well and doesn't hold onto stains, gets softer with washing
  • weakened by regular bleach
  • shrinks less than cotton
  • will mildew, but is not damaged by moths or insects

When blended with other fibers linen adds strength, absorbency and drapability. Cotton and linen blends are really nice good quality yarns, and are less expensive than the 100% yarns.

Hope you've enjoyed learning some new things about an old, old fiber.

Find out more about cotton here.

Need to know how silk is produced?

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