Linen, The Fabric Of Choice
The manufacturing process, by which flax is made into linen and some history of the use of linen by humans
The wondrous feel and technical advantages of natural fibers are not lost on today's consumers, nor were they lost upon the ancients. For thousands of years, linen fibers have been the choice material for the making of clothing and bedding. Historical evidence of linen use stretches back to 8000 B.C.E., where it was clearly extremely valuable. Linen shrouds were placed upon the dead in ancient Egypt as gifts for the wealthy and powerful to take with them into the afterworld.
Although the term is often used generically to refer to weaves of cotton and other fibers, real linen is spun from fibers of the flax plant. Flax can be grown in a variety of climates, but Belgium, France and the Netherlands are considered to have the finest linen flax. Linen bed sheets are prized above all others for their amazing comfort, durability and beauty. A linen comforter is tough to beat for its warmth and luxurious feel. Thanks to its hollow structure (imagine a bamboo shoot), linen also absorbs water better than most fabrics, making it excellent for dishtowels and also for clothing comfort, as it will absorb the body's moistures.
To create linen, the flax undergoes a process of agricultural and mechanical changes. First, the plants are retted, or left to soak in dew that collects on them in the mornings. The dew and sun combine to dissolve the pectins in the fibers. The fibers are then rippled, which is the process by which the flax seeds are removed and scutched, the process of separating the fibers from the wood of the plant. Now that the fibers are pure, they are spun into yarn and then woven into cloth, which is bleached and dyed.
In the past, flax was retted by leaving it in a river, but this pollutes the river with the remains of the dissolved pectins, so it has fallen out of favor in flax processing. Using dew and sun works as well, if slightly longer. Given this change, however, linen processing is among the most ecologically sound processes utilized by men. Every part of the plant is used after it has been cut from the ground. Various parts of the flax plant are used to make textiles, paper, paneling, insulation, paint, soap, food, and medicine. Few products are so efficiently used as flax.
In addition to its high utility value in manufacturing, flax has other uses, which benefit the environment in farming. It makes for an excellent rotation crop (to keep fields from being drained of their nutrients by consistent growth of the same plant) and it requires very little fertilizer or pesticide (one-third as much as wheat and one-thirteenth as much as potatoes).
Moreover, linen cloths, which, unlike other textiles, actually improve with use and don't need starching, are biodegradable and recyclable, have anti-allergenic properties, and have outstanding ultraviolet light blocking capabilities.
While it may have taken thousands of years before humans could fully understand and appreciate the value of linen, it has been appreciated for millennia. Thanks to advanced manufacturing techniques, the advantages of linen fabrics are available to a wide variety of people in a variety of applications. It is fitting that, as the oldest human-made fabric, linen should occupy a place of preeminence among modern textiles.