Linen: A Miracle Fiber?

 

Linen. A humble fiber from the flax plant. The oldest woven fabric known to humankind. The cloth used in all climates across the globe. My personal favorite fiber. 

My family and friends have been subject to my thoughts on linen for years now. I wear it year round, and have thrifted my way into a linen dominated wardrobe. In fact, while I write this blog post, I'm wearing a linen button down shirt that I bought at a thrift store and a pinafore linen dress that I made last summer. So today, I thought it would be fun to go in depth about the properties and benefits of linen.

What specifically is linen?

Linen is the natural fiber that comes from the stem of the flax plant. The flax stalks are harvested, dried, and then undergo several steps to remove the outer part of the stalk, leaving the long, shiny fibers behind. These fibers are spun into yarn, and then woven into fabric. Linen fabric is strong and cool to the touch. It is excellent for hot weather, and for wearing next to the skin to absorb oils and sweat. 

Some properties of linen:

  • Antibacterial
  • Can absorb a lot of moisture, but dries quickly
  • Gets softer and softer over time
  • Resistant to mold & moths
  • Even stronger when wet than dry
  • Hypo-allergenic
  • Very durable
  • One of the most sustainable textiles

Linen naturally resists mold, odors, and bacteria. This is part of why, for centuries, it was worn as the "underwear" layer directly next to the skin. It was durable, and easy to clean, unlike the layers of wool or silk that may have been worn as the outermost layers. Linen also doesn't hold onto odors the same way that cotton t-shirts or polyester athletic wear do. I usually hang up linen garments to air out, and can get several wears out of them before needing to do laundry. Having to do less laundry was an unexpected perk when I first started wearing a lot of linen. It's a win-win, because not only does it help conserve water, it also prolongs the life of my linen garments. Less laundering = less wear and tear on the fabric. 

Unlike most natural fibers, linen is actually stronger when wet than dry. This is why I use linen yarn for the soap saver bags in our shop; the damp environment won't weaken the fibers, and the resistance to mold and bacteria makes linen the perfect fiber for humid spaces like a bathroom. Natural fibers like cotton and wool are weaker when they are wet, and more prone to stretching out of shape, or breaking. Linen's durability is a huge benefit. 

Linen is also hypoallergenic when untreated, which makes it a great fabric for people with sensitive skin. Because linen continues to soften over time, it's a fabric that becomes even more comfortable the longer it's worn. My well-worn linen garments are some of the softest, comfiest pieces of clothing I own. 

In addition to all of this, linen is one of the most sustainable textile fibers on the globe. Let's talk about that. 

Linen's environmental impact:

The flax plant is fast growing, and requires few, if any, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Natural rainfall is typically sufficient for growing flax, which avoids heavy water use through irrigation. Untreated flax is also completely biodegradable. Without chemical dyes or treatments, linen fabric will break down and decompose. For a comparison, a cotton shirt uses about 2,700 liters of water to produce. A linen shirt? Only 6.4 liters. 

Of course, industrial processing of linen can have harmful consequences if companies use chemical processes to speed things up. (Look for dew-retted, or water-retted linens, instead of chemically retted linen) Heavy bleaching to get pure white linen and certain dyes are also harmful to the environment, so naturally colored linen, or naturally dyed linens are much more environmentally friendly. Linen fabric is also more labor-intensive to produce than cotton or synthetic fabrics, which contributes to its higher cost. Labor standards & transparency are important to consider when sourcing linen. 

Linen is a fantastically environmentally friendly fiber in its natural form. Organic flax is one of the most sustainable fibers you could find, and has become hugely popular in the slow-fashion movement for many of the above reasons. 

The fibers and fabrics we wear next to our skin are an intimate part of our daily lives. I've found it to be extremely rewarding to be more mindful about what I wear, and the impact it makes on the environment. I love researching and sharing this information with others! Thanks for stopping by :)

Until next time,

Rowena 

 

References: 

“Fabric Focus: Linen.” Love Your Clothes, 28 Mar. 2017, https://www.loveyourclothes.org.uk/guides/fabric-focus-linen?language=en#:~:text=Properties%20of%20linen,to%20clothes%20moths%20and%20dirt.

“Flax (Linen).” CFDA, https://cfda.com/resources/materials/detail/flax-linen.

Newman, Clare. “Material Guide: How Sustainable Is Linen?” Good On You, 29 Mar. 2022, https://goodonyou.eco/how-sustainable-is-linen/.

 

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