Credit: Photo by Adam Morgan
Linen is a popular choice for not only dresses and shirts, but also for household products such as bed sheets and tablecloths. It is more expensive than other clothing fabrics such as cotton or synthetics, but it is worth the money to many people. What makes linen more expensive? Where does linen cloth come from and how is linen clothing made?
What is Linen and Where Does it Come From?
Linen is one of the oldest fabrics used in the world. There is evidence of the cloth being woven in ancient Egypt and it is mentioned in the Bible several times. It is produced from fibers of the flax plant. Much of the production of the plant is still done by hand because removing the fibers is a delicate operation. The fibers used to make the linen are found in the stalks of the flax plant and the quality of the linen depends upon the quality of the plant itself. Removing the fibers is labor intensive. MosCredit: photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration (NARA's Central Plains Region (Kansas City) (NREA))t flax is grown in the cool humid climates of Western Europe. Belgium, Scotland and Ireland are often considered the best countries for producing the finest quality of linen.
In the past linen was used for many bath, table, and bed textiles and the term “linens” continues to be used though the fabric has changed. Linen wrinkles easily, but is a cool fabric for hot weather and is soft to the touch; getting softer as it is washed. This cloth is resistant to moths, dirt, and stains, and takes dyes well. It does not have lint, doesn’t pill, and can be machine washed, steamed, or dry cleaned.
Linen has many uses other than clothing and household goods. About 70% of the produced linen is used for clothing fabric; the remainder is used for a variety goods ranging from wallpaper to canvas for oil paintings. It is used for upholstery, luggage, and upper portions of shoes. Artisan bakers use it to hold dough for the final rise; pool cues may be wrapped with Irish linen. In the past, it was used for books, shields and bowstrings.
Processing the Flax Plant
It only takes about one hundred days for the flax plant to grow from seed to readiness for harvesting. The seeds are planted in shallow rows and are covered by hand or machine. Once planted, the crop must be kept free from weeds. As the plant grows to maturity, about two feet to just under four feet tall, it produces flowers, usually white or blue, but can be red. The blue flowered plants are considered producers of higher quality fibers. The plant has pods which hold several seeds which also have a variety of uses.
When the stem of the plant turns from green to yellow, it is time for harvesting; delays in haCredit: Photo by Trish Steelrvesting results in poor quality linen. The plant is pulled entirely out of the ground intact as any cut in the stalk will cause it to lose sap and decrease the quality of the fibers. The plants are bundled and sent to the next step of processing which is removing the fibers from the stalks. The beginning of this process is called retting.
Retting removes the wood bark from around the fibers in the stalk. To do this, dew, water or chemicals are used to loosen the pectin that connects the fibers to the stem. The dew process of retting is the natural way many farmers choose. The stalks are laid out in the fields where the rain and dew and the heat from the sun loosen and rot the outer bark. When water is used, the flax stalks are placed in water, either stagnant pools or running streams, and workers wait for the water to rot the stem. This method can take up to two weeks. A quicker method places the stalks in a chemical solution of alkali or oxalic acid where they are then pasteurized and boiled. Another retting method uses vats of warm water in which the stalks are submerged, removed, and put through rollers that crush the bark while clean water washes away the pectin.
The next step in the processing of the flax plant is called breaking. After the plant is retted, it is squeezed and left to dry. The dry retted stalks are next put through fluted rollers where the stem is broken up and the exterior fibers are separated from the woody fibers which will be used to make linen. During this step the stalks are broken into small pieces called shives. The shives are sent to the scutching machine where rotating paddles extract the flax fiber from the stalk. Scutching can also be done by hand using a wooden scutching knife and an iron scraper.
The separated fibers are combed and straightened. The fibers are now ready for spinning and weaving. Shorter fibers are used for the sturdier, coarser products while the longer fibers are reserved for linen clothing and other finer products. The long fibers are sent through spreaders and the same-length fibers are combined. The fibers lay parallel with the ends overlapping and create what is called a sliver. These are then put through another set of rollers to make what is called a roving wCredit: Photo by Kretahich resemble locks of blonde hair, where thus comes the term “flaxen hair.”
The rovings are collected onto a spinning frame where they are pulled and elongated into a ribbon of thread which is then wound onto spools. Unlike cotton, linen is not elastic and the spinning environment needs to be hot and humid to more easily work the linen fiber into yarn. To produce the fine yarns, the roving goes through a hot-water bath to bind the fibers together. This is called wet spinning. Dry spinning produces the coarser yarns used for products such as inexpensive twine or unwoven products. The wet spun fibers are transferred from the spools to larger “take-up’ reels where they are dried and wound onto bobbins for weaving or into varying weights of spools or yarn. These bobbins are sent to looms for weaving into linen fabric.
Linen clothing has been around for centuries. Though more expensive than some of the other textiles and synthetic cloths, linen will continue to be a popular choice for clothing fabric as well as certain household goods, because of its durability, feel, versatility and appearance.
- www.howmade.com article by Nancy EVBryk
The copyright of the article “The Making of Linen Clothing Fabric” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.