The Fashionable Revival of Sustainable Linen Fabrics
Linen fabric has a rich history that goes back millennia. This versatile textile, woven from fibers collected from the stems of flax plants, had dropped off in popularity in modern times due to the development of the cotton gin, which made cotton fabric much faster and cheaper to produce. Today, linen is experiencing a comeback in a major way as designers and consumers alike embrace a more sustainable future in fashion.
The ancient and storied origins of linen fabric
There is evidence that linen fabric has been used by humans since before the beginnings of civilization. During an excavation of a cave in the Republic of Georgia, a team of scientists discovered ancient, more than 34,000-year-old, flax fibers.
The fibers found in the cave would have been collected by early humans from wild flax plants, as this was before the dawn of agriculture and cultivation of crops. The team identified fibers that appeared to have been used for various applications, including fibers that were dyed (indicating potential use as fabric) and fibers that were twisted (likely used to make string or ropes). Flax has always been a versatile fiber!
Flax linen fabrics continued to be useful textiles as civilizations developed and is most well-known for having been one of the primary textiles used in ancient Egypt. The hot, arid climate of Egypt made linen a perfect choice – it’s breathable, sweat-wicking, and dries quickly. Linen was used to make clothing and burial shrouds – and most famously, to wrap mummies!
Linen eventually spread across the world, and began to be used primarily for sleepwear, bedsheets, towels, and napkins. During the Middle Ages, linen was so commonly used in household items in the western world and beyond, that the word “linens” – a word we still use today - became a blanket term for any daily-use domestic goods that were originally made of linen: tablecloths, napkins, towels, and bedsheets.
The fall of linen (and the rise of cotton)
Unfortunately, linen was eventually pushed to the side during the Industrial Revolution, becoming a mere niche product without much market-share. This was brought on initially by the creation of the cotton gin in America 1793 – which mechanically removed the seeds from cotton, eliminating the need for slaves (unfortunately, the primary workforce in the United States at that time) to remove the seeds by hand. This freed up the slaves to spend back-breaking days working in the cotton fields, which allowed farmers to grow more cotton – making cotton production more efficient and profitable. Linen just couldn’t keep up!
In contrast, linen is much more time-consuming and expensive to produce. Fibers must be collected from the stalks of flax plants and separated from the hard core of the stem, either by soaking in water or using chemicals. The outer fibers must then be removed, to leave only the useable fibers from the interior of the stem. These fibers must be combed, then spun into yarn that can be dyed and woven into beautiful fabrics. This is a much more involved process than producing yarn from cotton that can simply be gathered from the plants, the seeds removed, then carded and spun.
A sustainable future
Today, momentum is building in the sustainability movement, especially when it comes to fashion. Cotton is coming to the forefront as the antithesis of sustainable fabric production. It’s a crop that requires immense amounts of irrigation, wasting precious water. Also, unless the cotton is labelled as “organic” – it likely required large amounts of pesticide applications to improve yields, which can disrupt the ecosystem of soil. Plus, cotton farming usually involves quite a bit of tilling, which can erode the soil, and it produces a lot of waste since the only part of the plant that is harvested are the fluffy fibers surrounding the seeds.
There are also some pitfalls from a sustainability standpoint when it comes to flax production for linen. A focus on crop yields with a complete disregard to the environmental impact of farming can result in soil degradation due to excessive use of pesticides and tilling. In addition, when “retting” (separating the fibers from the woody core of the stem) is done with toxic chemicals instead of by soaking the stems in water, these chemicals can make their way into the environment and potentially cause harm.
However, linen is still one of the most sustainable fabrics, and is a much more environmentally friendly option than cotton. Flax plants require significantly less water than cotton throughout their growth cycle. In addition, with the implementation of farming practices that protect the soil, flax can be produced in a way that doesn’t harm the environment, but in fact helps to regenerate the soil. Also, in contrast with cotton, the entire flax plant is harvested and used – fiber can be collected from both the stem and roots and the seeds can be eaten whole or made into oil. The negative impact of chemical retting can be avoided by the use of water retting, which has become more popular with focus on reducing environmental damage.
When sourcing sustainable linen, you can make sure the fabric you purchase is high-quality and was produced with a focus on stewardship of the environment by looking for linen made with certified European Flax. The European Flax certification program ensures that certified flax is completely traceable back through the manufacturing process all the way to the farm. European Flax is grown locally in Europe with responsible methods, using no irrigation and enhancing biodiversity within the agricultural system.
Here at FabricSight, we have a huge selection of linen fabric by the yard, including European Flax certified fabrics.
Linen: not just sustainable, but comfortable
While the sustainability and eco-friendly nature of linen fabric is a great reason to wear it – you won’t be sacrificing comfort! It’s also a breathable, luxurious fabric that makes wonderful garments.
Because the flax fibers used to make linen fabric were originally a part of the structural integrity of the stem of the plant, they are extremely strong – making linen a very durable, wear-resistant fabric. It’s also soft, and gets softer with each wash, giving it a wonderful, “lived-in” type of feel. Linen is a versatile fabric that’s great year-round as a laying piece but is especially good for hot weather – it will help you keep cool and will wick any sweat away from your body. It won’t soak up sweat and hold it like cotton; linen soaks up liquids quickly but also dries fast.
The only drawbacks to linen are that it tends to wrinkle very easily, will usually shrink on the first wash, and is more expensive than many other types of fabrics. However, we think that the benefits of this sustainable fabric far outweigh the few disadvantages.
Linen is one of the most beautiful, comfortable, sustainable, and practical fabrics you can incorporate into your everyday wardrobe.
What kind of clothing can you make with linen fabric?
As you’ve seen, linen is one of the most versatile fabrics available, with a wide variety of uses - from items for the home to garments. In fashion, linen can be used for an array of different garments.
One of the best uses for linen is in the summer wardrobe – lightweight tank tops, blouses, loose-fitting dresses and skirts, and flowy shorts. The breathability of linen makes it perfect for staying cool out in the hot sun! For warm-weather pieces like these, you’ll want to choose a lightweight linen, like this premium, certified European Flax linen fabric that comes in an array of beautiful colors. If you prefer a more rustic, faded look, this yarn-dyed linen may be just what you need to add to your closet – the colors have that perfect, worn-in look.
Linen also makes great button-up shirts, especially looser-fitting shirts with either short sleeves or rolled cuffs. Choose a light to medium weight fabric – this linen viscose blend would be perfect for a comfy collared shirt. The viscose adds a nice drape and silkier hand-feel that makes it a truly luxurious fabric to wear.
While linen is great for flowy tops and dresses, it can also be an awesome choice for more structured garments when heavier weight fabric is used. A good pair of linen trousers or a linen summer blazer can be a great addition to a warm-weather outfit. This thicker, certified European Flax linen fabric would be perfect for pants, blazers, and more structured dresses.
Linen blends can also be a great option if 100% linen is not the right choice for you. For example, this cupro linen twill is the perfect medium weight fabric to go in just about any direction – a shirt or blouse, a nice summer dress, or even a jacket! The cupro adds a beautiful drape and softness to the mix, combined with the breathability and durability of linen.
How should you care for your linen garments?
Another great thing about linen is how easy it is to care for and how wonderfully soft it gets after a few washes!
Linen can be hand or machine washed in warm or cold water. It’s best to use a gentle cycle and mild detergent if you decide to machine wash your linen garments.
You can also dry your linen in a tumble dryer at a low temperature setting or hang it to dry. Keep in mind that the first wash/dry cycle may shrink your linen significantly – so when sewing with linen, it’s important to wash your fabric before sewing the garment to get all the shrink out!
As linen loves to wrinkle, you may want to iron your garments before wearing – you can use a medium or hot iron temperature. Linen presses beautifully but will likely get progressively more wrinkled throughout the day. So, if you don’t feel like ironing, then don’t! Embrace the wrinkles and the lived-in, homey feel of your linen garments.