Linen fabric is the name given to a group of fabrics made from cellulose fibers obtained from the stem of the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum). The linen fibers are spun into yarn, then woven into fabric.
Linen is considered as the first man-made fabric and once upon a time it was highly valued. The cultivation and the subsequent processes involved in linen production was long drawn, complicated and expensive.
Today, with the advent of technology, the process of manufacture is not complex, comparatively but good linen is still expensive and it is still highly valued.
Let us see how it is made today.
In this article I will cover:
Qualities of Linen Fabric
Linen fabric is an all time favorite natural fiber fabric; it has all the positive qualities inherent in natural fabrics – good moisture absorbency, keeping you cool and comfortable in a hot and humid climate, natural elegance, strength, lint-free, anti-static nature, and durability for a long, long time (It even survived around the mummies).
It is much in demand in dressmaking and is used to make a variety of apparel like shirts, pants, dresses, skirts, jackets, vests, blazers, etc. Linen is also popular as a home decorating material. It is used to make bed linen napkins, table cloths, hand towels, kitchen towels, etc. All in all, a superstar fabric, especially as a summer-friendly material.
Read more about linen : FAQ on linen
Steps in Linen fabric production
Flax plant grows best in a cool temperate/subtropical temperate zones of the northern hemisphere with fertile but loose soil. It is mainly grown in the United States, Canada, Europe, Northern Africa, Uruguay, the Middle East, Japan, and New Zealand.
Flax is an annual plant which means it completes its life cycle in a single growing season. The plant grows to about three or four feet tall. Flax can be harvested about 100 days after sowing the seeds. There are many different varieties of flax.
The best qualities that are considered when selecting the flax species are resistant to disease and fiber productivity. The flax plant fiber contains 70-80% cellulose.
In the cold season, the seeds are sown, ideally in loamy, well-drained soil. Flax does not grow well in severe heat. Therefore, sowing depends on the regional climate of each country. Straight and little branched stems are preferred so the sowing is done very close to each other.
Flax is a bast fiber (bast fibers are obtained chiefly from the phloem of plants, just behind the bark). The maturity of the fibers happens about seven weeks after flowering
Read more about the plant here.
Harvesting is usually done after the seeds are mature – when the green capsules containing the seeds turn yellow-brown. The stems are harvested either by pulling them by roots out of the soil or by cutting very close to the root to obtain the maximum length of flax fibers.
Harvesting can be done using machines too. But they are unable to uproot the plant. Therefore the manual process is much preferred, especially to produce finer and more highly prized linen. Wind and storms are the enemies of good linen fibers as the stalks fall to the ground and get damaged.
The cut stems are bundled together. These bundles are called beets.
Drying and threshing
They are spread on the ground to dry under the sun. Once they are dried, seeds are removed. Threshing refers to the removal of seeds. For this, dried stalks are beaten until the pods are opened and seeds come out.
The straw you get as waste is used to make particle board and animal litter.
Do you know flaxseed is rich in omega 3 fatty acids? Flax seeds are used as edible seeds and in the production of linseed oil. Some are kept aside for subsequent cultivation.
Retting is a process needed for making fabric out of the flax fibers – this process is not needed for fibers used to make paper. It involves isolation of the fibers by the disintegration of the stems due to microorganisms present in the water they are soaked – The bark and the inner pith (called pectin) must be rotted away.
In retting, the dried stems are again bundled and immersed in ponds, dammed areas, tanks, or other water bodies or spread out in the dampened ground. During retting, bacteria decompose the pectin that binds the fibers together. Over-retting makes a mushy weak fiber. Under-retting makes it challenging to separate the fibers from the stem.
Best quality linen is produced by retting stems in a slow-moving water resource like streams or rivers. Retting can also be achieved by treating the stems with chemicals.
After the required period (10-90 days), retted flax can be removed from the water. Retted stems are spread in the field for drying for a few weeks.
The next step is called scutching – this separates the fibers by manual or mechanical action. The stems are spread out and cleared of all debris and then beaten with a wooden mallet or another tool to extract the inner fibers. In factories, they are crushed between fluted metal rollers. In scutching, the ligneous debris (wood and bark) are also eliminated.
Once the inner fibers are separated, they are combed through a bed of nails into thin strands. This process is called heckling. During this process, shorter fibers are separated from long fibers.
Long fibers are used to make fibers for fabric weaving. Short fibers are used to make non woven material. The shorter fibers are also spun into coarse yarn and are used to make low-quality linen products.
The flax fibers are traditionally spun by hand. The slightly damp fibers are twisted together to form yarns. These yarns are then wound onto bobbins or spools. Yarns thus spun are very fine. To make thicker yarns, multiple skeins of thin yarns are spun together. This process is called plying.
Since linen yarns have no elasticity, it is difficult to knit them. Therefore the most preferred method is weaving on a loom. Weaving is a process where multiple linen yarns are interlaced horizontally and vertically on a loom to make linen fabric.
Linen is made into materials of different weights – spanning very thin fine quality linen, which is almost see-through like handkerchief linen, cambric and lawn to heavy weight upholstery and suit-weight linen and linen canvas.
History of linen production
There is evidence of linen’s presence dating back to 8000 BC – Linen fragmants have been discovered in Neolithic (Around 9,000 B.C) escavations in Switzerland (You can read about this here); you can say that it is the oldest natural cellulosic fiber.
The ancient people of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece used to wear clothes made of linen.
Linen has also been discovered in Egyptian tombs that dates back 4,500 BC. Linen is very absorbent and dry fast. Therefore people of Greece and Egypt who lived in humid and hot climates preferred to wear clothes made of linen.
Ancient Egyptians even used linen in the place of currency. Initially, linen was used exclusively by the affluent upper-class community. Eventually, this scenario changed and people of all social strata used linen.
Linen was brought to Europe by Phoenicians. Cultivation and production of linen flourished in Europe until the introduction of cotton. Since the production of cotton was easier than linen, linen fell out of popularity. Still, linen is considered to be a much sought-after natural fabric.
More reading material on how linen is made: –
- You can also visit Linen Museum in Cremona, Lombardia, Italy with various exhibits involved in the linen manufacturing.
Myths around the production of linen
Greek Myth – Arachne, the goddess who invented linen fibers and wove it into a thin wonderful cloth was cursed into being a spider by goddess Athena in a fit of jealousy. In Europe Linen is considered as a gift of the goddess Hilda.
Which areas of the world are famous for Linen production?
Asia, Africa, China, Brazil and Europe.The largest producer of linen fabric currently is China. However, Ireland is known for its superior quality linen. Many other countries like Italy, Belgium, the United States, India are producers of linen fabric