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.
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.