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What is Linen?

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We’re commonly asked by our many customers and inquisitive textiles students, “what is linen?” Linen fabric has been a staple fabric for centuries. It’s typically lightweight and perfect for summer.

When asked, most people would be able to describe linen without hesitation. However, what makes linen so recognizable?

Where does it come from, and how has it been a go-to textile for decades? In this comprehensive guide, we’ll breakdown what linen’s properties are and how its use benefits your everyday life.

Linen fabric is found on a worldwide scale. The fabric originally derives from the fibrous properties of a flax plant. The wild flax plant is ancient, dating back during the Paleolithic era. These flax fibers, when processed, manipulate into different products. Linen fabric, one of the flax plant’s end products, is one of the of the most popular.

Linen is made to last. When this durable fabric comes in contact with water, it becomes more sturdy. Considered extremely breathable, linen only gets softer after each washing. This fabric has rigidity which helps with abrasion. It’s also resistant to staining and dirt. It doesn’t wear down easily and when properly cared for, can last a lifetime.

Sometimes linen garments carry small knots within its natural fiber. In the past, these knots meant the fabric became tossed aside as defective. Now, these little imperfections are unique and revered, making this distinct style of linen fabric well sought after.

Linen Upholstery Fabric
Linen Upholstery Fabric

The History of Linen

Linen’s popularity has existed for thousands of years. Linen fiber’s earliest discoveries were in ancient Egypt. When crops of flax were grown in controlled areas, they processed flax fibers into linen yarn.

Exotic fabrics like linen were exclusively for the wealthy. Linen’s earliest uses during their first productions were for the affluent members of society.  Linen became transformed into anything from bridal garb to burial garments.

Once linen fabric traveled towards Europe however, its biggest production was interestingly based in Ireland. Belfast, Ireland was the largest producer of linen fabric. Its production of linen crowned Belfast “Linenopolis!”

Belfast made linen for almost two centuries for dignitaries and common folk alike. Today, eastern Europe and China are responsible for the bulk of linen fabric.

While most linen becomes manufactured in eastern Europe and China, the flax comes from Canada. Canada is the biggest producer of flax over any country, with Kazakhstan and Russia behind it. Without their collaborative production of flax, linen would be in short supply.

Linen: How it’s Made

As previously mentioned, linen fabric is a natural fabric derived from flax fibers. Before processing however, they receive their start from the flax plant.

Flax, grown in cooler climates, is a food and fiber crop. Flax grows as a tall stalk similarly to wheat, usually getting to about 3 feet in height. It buds light blue flowers towards the top of its stalk.

To make linen, one would need to acquire the fiber from a flax plant. The fiber in a flax plant, found towards the base of the plant, has a smooth and straight appearance.

It takes about 100 days for a flax plant to produce the fibers needed to create linen fabric. Once the flowers bloom and the seeds mature, the flax fibers are ready for production. If the fibers turn brown, they can’t harvest the fibers for linen.

The flax fibers maintain a complex process for removing all of the fibers from its stalk. Once removed and processed, it’s made into linen yarn. From that stage, it’s manufactured into endless amounts of products like garments and bedding.

Irish Linen for Artist Canvas
Irish Linen for Artist Canvas

Linen vs. Cotton

Linen and cotton are natural fibers in textiles. The cotton plant has an interesting past of production comparable to the flax plant that makes linen. Similar to bast fibers used to make jute (and linen being classified as a bast fiber), cotton and linen are both natural alternatives for many products.

However, the distinction is clear. Linen is typically stronger than cotton. Its strength attributes to the flax fiber, which is slightly thicker than cotton fibers.

This point, along with the longer length of its fibers, contribute to its durability. Cotton fibers are smaller, but ultimately softer than a linen fiber. When processed, cotton feels more silky to the touch over linen.

Arguably most important, both linen and cotton are wicking fabrics. This means that they retain moisture and remain as sturdy as they were dry. That’s why towels are made from linen or cotton.

Overall, the uses for both cotton and linen are as versatile as they are limitless.

Linen Projects and Applications

As we’ve learned, linen fabric boasts some amazing uses, including:

    • Blankets: Linen is an effective shield against the cold. It’s fibers conform to their surroundings and retain heat well. Having blankets made by brahms mount from linen will keep you warm in the chillier months of the year!
    • Art Canvas: Linen, like traditional cotton canvas works well for artists. Since cotton and linen have similar properties, linen is a great substitute to cotton canvas for making art.
  • Garments: Linen’s most popular use is in clothing! It keeps you cool in the summer and linen’s lightweight properties provide comfort all day long. While linen isn’t wrinkle resistant, it does have a beautiful, refined look to any clothing application.

Linen fabric is perfect for so many uses. If you’d like to know more about how you’ll use linen in your everyday life, feel free to contact us. If you would like to learn about other fabric types, and how linen compares with them, please click-thru this link here.

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