Linen, that lovely, crisp fabric that when freshly laundered and ironed has an affect on me like no other fabric. Flax, from which linen is made, is one of the oldest agricultural plants in the world. Over 5000 years ago the Egyptians named it “woven moonlight”, due to its very singular beauty. So it would seem that I am not the only one who has observed the allure of this durable fabric. A little less poetic, but all the more apt, is its Latin name: “linum usitatissimum”.
Flax was grown in ancient Egypt as early as the 4th millennium BC, and was used extensively for tunics and gowns, as well as for the fine cloth bandages that were used to wrap mummies. As a testament to the strength of this fabric, when King Tut’s tomb was opened, his linen curtains were found completely intact. I’ll be sure to mention that at my next client meeting when they ask if linen is to delicate for window treatments.
During the Middle Ages linen remained a clothing staple. Linen was often used for underclothes because it was light, cool, comfortable, and very easy to wash. Both men’s and women’s coats and cloaks were often woven of linen, and many women’s dresses were made of linen woven at home on a loom. Again with its durability and the fact that people didn’t own closets full of clothing (except for the very wealthy) it was a very popular fabric.
Over time, expanding trade routes brought linen—and the cultivation of flax—to Europe, the Near East, and the Americas. Different weights and types of linen fabrics were developed for different uses.
But first the plant needed to be processed. The processing of flax is a mult-step process. The flax plant is either completely pulled out of the ground or cut close to the root, and the seeds are removed through a process called winnowing. Fibers are loosened from the plant stalk through the retting process which involves a wetting and then allowing a the plant to begin to disintegrate. It can be a rather malodorous process. Then the pulpy plants are ready for the scutching procedure. Scutching occurs between August and December, and involves removing the woody part of the stalk by crushing it between two rollers, leaving the fibers exposed. Shorter fibers are combed away, leaving only the long, desirable flax fibers behind.
After the fibers have been separated and processed, they are typically spun into yarns and woven or knit into linen textiles. These textiles can then be bleached, dyed, printed on, or finished with a number of treatments or coatings.
It is then available for you to purchase and the next question becomes whether to purchase Irish linen or Belgium linen? Flax was grown in Ireland for many years before advanced agricultural methods and more suitable climate led to the concentration of quality flax cultivation in northern Europe (Most of the world crop of quality flax is now grown in Northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands). Since about the 1950’s to 1960’s the flax fiber for Irish Linen yarn has been, almost exclusively, imported from France, Belgium and the Netherlands. So it depends more on where the flax was grown, than where it was processed. There has been an influx of fibers grown in China but they are considered inferior compared to the Northern European flax.
Now as to its care…..Linen is one of the few fabrics that is stronger wet than dry. The fibers do not stretch and are resistant to damage from abrasion. However, because linen fibers have a very low elasticity, the fabric will eventually break if it is folded and ironed at the same place repeatedly.
Mildew, perspiration, and bleach can also damage the fabric, but it is resistant to moths and carpet beetles. Linen is relatively easy to take care of, since it resists dirt and stains, has no lint or pilling tendency, and can be dry-cleaned, machine-washed or steamed. It can withstand high temperatures, and has only moderate initial shrinkage.
Linen should not be dried too much by tumble drying: it is much easier to iron when damp because of its growth pattern. Linen wrinkles very easily, and so some more formal linen garments require ironing often, in order to maintain perfect smoothness. Nevertheless, the tendency to wrinkle is often considered part of the fabric’s particular “charm”.
Some of my favorite sources for bed linens are Rough Linen, Restoration Hardware, J.Samuel’s new linen collection, de Le Cuona, Loro Piana, and NC Souther linens.
Just last week I purchased a complete new set of linens for my bed. We spread them upon the bed and then I immediately jumped in. How can you not? It’s linen.