Flax, Linen And Sustainability

Strawberry Alarm Clock Trousers- my latest linen project

I like linen.  I really, really like linen.  It’s cool, it’s soft, easy to wash and yes it wrinkles until it’s worn in but I prefer to think of it as genteel rumpling.  It’s a small price to pay for the comfort of wearing linen fabric.  (Pressing?  Why bother, unless I’m dressing for a professional setting?  I see bare chests, bare feet and all kinds of underwear every time I leave my house so I figure my rumples are just fine.)

flax field in bloom

Linen comes from the flax plant, which is one of the oldest crops grown by mankind.  The process of growing flax and turning it into fabric hasn’t changed much in the past several thousand years.  I want to take a quick look at three facets of sustainability- farming, production into fabric, and durability.  Linen has a rich history and social lore, not to mention laundering and sewing quirks but for today I’m focusing only on linen and sustainability.

Farming:

In general, the flax plant grows best in cool, damp conditions and does well on relatively poor soil.  Worldwide, flax is grown on 12 million acres of farmland.  Russia cultivates the majority of flax, though flax production is gaining in popularity in Asia.

Obviously, farming practices vary greatly from country to country but by and large flax doesn’t need much.  Rust, wilt and fugus used to plague flax crops until disease and fungus resistant strains of flax were developed.  Pests are usually interested in flax, even without pesticides.  Flax requires a small fraction of the water a similar field of cotton would require, and uses very little (if any) fertilizer.

In fact, I discovered this little fact in my wanderings:

“Flax thrives on poor soil…in fact, it reacts to overdoses of fertilizer by producing fibers of reduced quality.”

For farming practices, I give flax a B/B+.  Not too shabby.

Production: Harvesting, Retting, Breaking and Scutching

Click to visit Joybilee Farm, where fiber artists grow their own medium. Neat!

Traditionally, the flax plants were hand-pulled from the field when mature.  Flax is a bast fiber, meaning the threads or fibers used to make fabric run the entire length of the stem.  Pulling ensures the longest possible threads, or staples.  Longer staples mean a stronger, higher-quality fabric.

Some farms mow the flax plants which leaves stubble.  That’s how they do it in South Carolina, but harvesting practices vary wildly.  Pulling machines have mostly replaced hand-pulling when the plant is not mown.

Retting in a Welsh field, c. 1914

Once the plants are pulled, the flax stems must be “retted.”  Again, the process varies somewhat but basically the stems lie on the ground for days or weeks and the tough outer stems rot away.   From what I can find, this is the same process used today to free the linen fibers, though some production methods involve steaming the stems rather than rotting them. 

Once that’s done, we can break, scutch and comb!  That’s when the slimy, softened stems are beaten to release the soft linen fibers.  That’s it.  No complicated chemistry, no chemical mediums.  Just pound it and comb out the fibers.  The modern process is the same, though it’s performed by large machines rather than a human arm.  I found a delightful series of Youtube videos on the process made by a living historian that illustrate the process well.  Rad.

For lack of chemicals used in processing and because every part of the plant is used industrially, I give linen an A for production sustainability.

Durability: Linen Lasts and Lasts

Durability is an important consideration for anyone interested in textile sustainability.  It’s simple- if you make a garment that lasts and lasts, you will need to replace it less often, which reduces consumption.

Linen is the strongest vegetable fiber, 2-3 times stronger than cotton.  I sew with linen find my linen clothes last and last and last through continual washing and wearing.   In four years of sewing with linen, I have yet to retire a linen garment.  For millennium, it was the everyday workhorse fabric from prince to peasant- for a reason.   Linen works hard.

I mean- the linen wrappings of mummies survive to the modern day.  I don’t expect my Strawberry Alarm Clock pants to last for 3000 years, but it does inspire confidence in the fiber.

For durability (not to mention comfort), linen ranks high with me.  Based on my own personal experience with linen’s durability, I rank it an A-/B+.

In my book, linen is second only to hemp for sustainability goodness.

All in all, whether linen carries an “organic” tag or not, it ranks pretty high in terms of sustainability.  In fact, commercially grown linen seems so close to organic that I’m not sure adding the tag “organic” to linen means much except a hike in the pricing.

It also has gorgeous drape, takes dye easily and develops a soft luster over time.  It’s easy to sew, feels delicious next to the skin, and lasts for years and years.  What’s not to love?

Click here to check out a huge range of linen from most online fabric retailers in one place.  I didn’t realize that amazon does that, but it’s way simpler than trotting around all over the internet.

To fill in the details on flax and linen production, follow the links.  You can also check out these other sources:

Agricultural Marketing Resource Center- A very long list of very detailed aspects of flax and linen production.

Nordic Initiative, Clean and Ethical- With information on a variety of other fibers.

New York Fashion Center

Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute- Detailed overview of flax as a crop.


64 comments

    • I think so… I forgot one of the sustainability aspects! Biodegradability… synthetics don’t break down over time, and natural fibers will.

  1. Thanks for this very informative post on linen. I have been exploring ways to reduce my eco-footprint. I am definitely going to check out linen.

    • Cool! True linen (as opposed to a “linen” weave) will feel cool when you lay your hand on it. Weird, but true. Low quality stuff and non-linen won’t have that same coolness.

  2. God bless you Stephanie – yet another great teaching resource for me. I was just talking about linen with my 9s last week. We might view your pictures and talk more about this in class tomorrow morning as something interesting before we head to our Anzac Day service.

    • I learned a lot while I was reading up, too. There’s some awful greenwashing/organic-washing type information out there, but I think I manged to wade through it ok…

  3. I loved linen before reading your post and now I love it even more. Like you, I don’t care about the wrinkling, even though I like ironing linen, it takes a crease so beautifully. If I lived in a warmer climate I would probably wear mostly linen year round, however in winter, it is a little cool.

    • It’s such a lovely fabric, but yes a little cool for winter… Though the winters are so non-existent here I can wear it year round. The upside of the tropics!

  4. Thanks for the great post about linen. I find that some of the vintage linen I’ve bought at estate sales is quite scratchy, and I wonder if there are tiny pieces of stem left in the fibers….
    BTW, it’s actually a cool garden plant. We used to grow it on our research farm, and the tiny blue flowers standing above the rigid stems were quite beautiful. I think I’ll throw a few seeds in my veg garden this year to fill in the back.

    • It may be that, or a shorter staple/lower quality fabric. The scratchy bits are ends of the fiber, and they will smooth down over time and washing. Hemp can be much the same.

      I’m thinking I might throw some flax seeds into our garden beds for winter. It doesn’t freeze here, and I think the cool damp conditions might be just right for the flax. Then if I start feeling crazy I can pull, ret, break and scutch it. But then I’ll stop, I don’t have a spinning wheel. :)

  5. Thanks for this great article! I knew a little about it as here in northern France we have perfect soils and rather humide climate perfectly suitable for flax and we’re used to seeing it lie on the ground for a certain amount of weeks at the beginning of summer. Flax fields are beautiful with their tiny blue flowers.
    I totally agree with you, it’s a great fabric to wear and my go-to for summer sewing, I really love the drape and the look of it.

    • Yes- I’ve read that some of the best flax growing regions is in northern france/belgium.. I’d love to see a field of flax in bloom, so gorgeous.

  6. I’ve nearly finished a half circle skirt made from an old linen bed sheet, Irish of course. Perfect for keeping you cool and looks great. Not to be confused with ramie which is similar but definitely not the same. Very informative post.

    • Oh wow- I bet it’s gloriously soft fabric.

      Ramie is made of a kind of grass (well, I guess flax and bamboo are grasses, too…) though sometimes I have seen nettle fabric called flax. It’s very confusing. But no, ramie is not the same thing.

  7. Great post. I bought a few pieces of linen last summer, it’s something I’m looking forward to working with. Manitoba grows a fair bit of flax (it works well with some of the areas with really poor, rocky soil) notably where my husbands family originally settled from the Ukraine. It’s beautiful, a sea of pretty flowers. It’s not much of a touristy area, but the time to drive through it is when flax and canola are in bloom.

      • Canola is like someone took a yellow highlighter to the horizon, otherworldly is right because it does seem too bright to be natural. Also, outside of Winnipeg, there are fields of sunflowers and to the north there are fields of clover for an apiary. This is the positive side of everything about my in laws involving a 2 hour drive – 2 hours from Winnipeg to Brandon, 2 hours from Brandon to “the lake”, 2 hours from “the lake” to “the farm” where Grandma’s family settled and a great aunt & uncle still live, and then 2 hours into Winnipeg again. I don’t really like the time in the car, but there are some beautiful moments along the way.

  8. I love all your posts on fibers that make the best fabric. Linen is especially awesome because you can buy it in person as opposed to hemp that isn’t at my local fabric store.

    • I’m pleased I didn’t put anyone to sleep! I think fibers and their properties and production and the ways to use them is unendingly interesting… I’m researching bamboo, alpaca and merino for future posts, but I’m open to suggestions.

  9. agreed, linen is great stuff – lovely to wear & sustainable. I just bought 4m of orangey-red for a dress & planning to make curtains with undyed linen.
    Ikea do some coarse weave linen very cheaply (at least in the UK they do)

  10. Hoot! I was just fondling the slate grey linen I have lined up to run up in your trouser, sorry pants block. :-)

    Love the strawberry red. It will rumple beautifully too.

    • Hehehe. English is a hilarious language.

      The red is really lovely to wear, I think everyone should have a pair of red *ahem* pants.. These are almost worn in to smoothness.

    • Easy to sew- which is always a big plus. The only thing is to remember to pre-wash it a few times because it will shrink up if it’s only washed once…

    • Oooh- I bet the handwoven stuff is just lovely. Could you do something simple like some heirloom hand-stitching and use them on tables? They’d last forevvvveeeer.

      I LOVE your lace tee! Thank you so much for sharing, it’s lovely. :) I’m pleased the pattern worked well for you.

  11. This is fantastic Stephanie! I spent over an hour watching the videos, it would be really neat to be able to see it in action. I haven’t had many linen pieces, but you’ve sparked my interest. I’ll have to make some linen pants for the summer…once I get to my pants block (it’s on my sewing table right now, but I’ve been in a bit of a low energy phase at the moment! It WILL be done though!!)

    • I know! The videos are both dry AND engaging at the same time, I wasn’t sure if I was being a big nerd for watching them all. I’m really surprised that Youtube has such a selection of Flax/Linen videos. Makes me want to grow some flax and scutch the heck out of it.

      At your own pace, at your own pace. I’m not going anywhere. :)

  12. Brilliant, that was so good to read. I love linen, I didn’t realise until recently how much of my wardrobe, and stash, is actually linen these days. It has done a love stealth trick on me, like a cat! hehehe. I just got in a stand of organice cotton thread and that is exciting because cotton is such an obnoxiously farmed product otherwise. Not many takers yet, but we’ll get there!

    • Linen kind of did the same thing to me, too. It’s pretty cool that so much other stuff is made of organic cotton these days (thread, etc) when it pretty much started out a few years ago as tea towels… That would make a good post.. The recent history of organic cotton… HmmM!

    • Linen’s the best… I want to play with some linen gauze, but I should probably wait til “spring” for that… It would get so soft and gorgeous…

  13. What an excellent post! I have a few yards of linen sitting in my stash but have been too nervy to sew with it because of the wrinkle factor. With my shift in thinking towards sustainability, I’m keen to start sewing with it as soon as our warmer months return.

    • The wrinkles will dissipate over time. It’s weird to me how many sewing discussions kind of rule out linen based on the wrinkling factor… *shrugs* I think you’ll likely find it’s a favorite fabric.

  14. Hi Steph, I miss the button for archives on your blog. I’d like to read your postings from the beginning. It would be easier.
    Don’t tell me I missed it! Thanks, Carmen aka SewingZoe.

    • Well– the first year or so was rife with long rambling posts and poor quality photos, and the second half of the second year I kind of quit blogging… You can navigate the good stuff through the category cloud and the menu at the bottom of the sidebar… I suppose I could put up some kind of archive button, but it’s not a linear progression at all. There’s no real “story” to my blog… ;)

  15. I love linen. I love the crisp wrinklyness on new stuff, and I love the soft liquidity when its worn in. Whats interesting is that the only pair of pants my husband has ever managed to destroy (other than the obvious hems on too-long jeans) are a pair of linen shorts. He’d had them for about a month, when suddenly the fabric at the inseam just ripped right apart. He was right miffed too, cause he’d kinda fallen in love with the way linen felt… and now he seems to be biased against it. Which I suppose means I get to use it all on myself instead of even thinking about him, right?

    • That’s a shame! Sometimes that kind of thing happens, despite the fabric… Maybe you’ll be able to win him over again in time.

    • I think those could be good words to live by, too- “You have to embrace the wrinkle.” Works on so many levels. Way to be a sage, Liza Jane. :)

  16. What a great post! I only wish I liked linen. I don’t like the feel of linen or silk on my skin. I know this sounds crazy. I agree that linen is an incredible fabric to sew with and I’ll happily sew it for others, but I just don’t want it on me. I love hemp and bamboo, though.

    • Yeah, sounds pretty crazy to me. ;) :D Not silk? I’m so curious about that…

      Mmmmm, hemp. I love love love everything I’ve ever made with hemp (with the exception of those disastrous welt pockets I did once…). It gets better and better with age, amazing stuff.

  17. Those trousers are too cute! And this is so interesting– I have two pieces of linen that are just waiting to be stitched up, and now I’m doubly excited!

  18. Thanks so much for this really interesting post – and for the tip about prewashing more than once! Didn’t know that – maybe that’s why some things are small for me, and it’s not because of too much tiramisu:).
    My island is hot and humid in summer, and I’ve always found linen the coolest thing to wear. And so long as you iron it well after washing, the wrinkles it gets are very obviously from wear and fall out when you hang it up afterwards, if it’s something you can wear again without washing (high sweat factor here!) like a skirt perhaps. Anyway who cares about wrinkles. For me they show something isn’t synthetic which is great. Thanks also for the tip about the cool factor as one of our few fabric shops is the type that sells a huge variety from cheap to pricey and the staff have no idea about fiber content unless it’s silk or wool. They say “linen” when it doesn’t crunch up at all and screams synthetic – I guess they’re talking linen weave, whatever that is!

  19. Great post! It’s funny ‘cuz I’ve been wondering what climate/soil conditions were good for linen. And you answered my question! That’s interesting that it’s grown in S. Carolina – it’s not too hot there?

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  21. I love linen and I have noticed the “look” of linen has become quite popular in upholstery. Is it just as sustainable/durable in that regard? Because it is so thin and soft, I have had doubts if it will hold up over time.

    • I can’t really say. A lot of fabric that isn’t actually linen is marketed as “linen” weave… Which is completely different. I will say my nice worn in linen clothes are very soft and still strong.

  22. Oh fabulous! What a great and informative article.

    There is one thing that puzzles me – I’ve read in a number of textile books that the modern retting process DOES use chemicals, and combined with the mechanised processsing of linen, it produces a fabric that is substantially different than historical linen. Apparently it results in much shorter, weaker, broken fibres. So while modern linen is still very strong, it’s not as strong as historical linen, doesn’t withstand the same strenuous washing, and doesn’t soften as nicely. Up until a few years ago there were still a few places that used the old retting processes, but I haven’t seen any linen marketed that way in at least 6 years. Unfortunately, none of these books discussed it in detail – it was just a brief sentence or two. Any thoughts?

    • Well- the process is still much the same… I don’t think I said it’s done the same as the historical method… Because it’s not. It’s industrialized.

      Several of the sources I read said that wet retting is still common, and also that linen manufacture doesn’t use harsh chemicals to process. I did a little more digging around and turned up this: http://www.madehow.com/Volume-4/Linen.html which says that in the retting process uses an akali or oxalic acid bath to aid the steaming and retting process. So I suppose it’s not 100% chemical free after all, but it apparently doesn’t use much (just like it doesn’t use much fertilizer, but it still uses some).

      I also ran across some information that says some manufacturers used to (maybe still do? it was in the past tense) use formaldehyde to impregnate the fibers so they can’t wrinkle. Or breathe, apparently, which is why it was scrapped as a treatment. Icky.

      I have had zero problems with durability on my linen fabrics. I know some people get pendantic about that kind of thing, but what can we do?

      Its hard to get more than a brief sentence or two about processing.. I’d really like to go visit some textile factories, but until I can go see it with my own eyes or spend the time tracking down workers who will talk to me (if we could cross the language barrier) but it’s not feasible…

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