Almost forgotten for a long time and literally displaced by cotton, linen is currently experiencing a true rediscovery. And rightly so: Because their special properties make them the perfect fiber for many areas of application.
History of linen fabrics
Linen is one of the oldest textiles and has a long history. Findings of seeds suggest that flax, a raw material for linen, was cultivated 10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia – the area of present-day Iraq and Turkey. However, there is evidence of a much earlier use of the plant. In a cave in Georgia, for example, processed and colored fibers were found that are dated to be 34,000 years old and originate from a wild form of the flax plant.
Today, linen is mostly associated with high-quality table or bed linen. Historically, however, alongside wool, it has long been the most common fiber for everyday clothing. It was only gradually superseded in the late 18th century by the invention of the so-called ginning machine, which made cotton production more cost-efficient. Linen has only regained importance as an ecological natural fiber in the last few decades.
What actually is linen?
Linen is made from the stalks of the flax plant and consists mostly of cellulose. Unlike seed fibers like cotton, which are made up of unconnected individual fibers, linen fibers form bundles. They are held together by a kind of plant glue, the so-called pectins. In a complex manufacturing process, the pectins must first be decomposed in order to be able to separate the fibers from one another.
The cultivation and processing of flax is far more resource-efficient than the cultivation and use of the widespread cotton. It gets by with less water and does not require any chemicals for further processing into linen fabric, which means that the fabric is completely biodegradable. The flax plant is used in its entirety. In addition to the high-quality fiber bundles for linen production, the other components of the plant are used, for example, for the production of twine, rope or linseed oil.
The fibers of the flax plant dry faster than cotton or wool and are more resilient when wet. Linen yarn was therefore also used for ropes and ship sails for a long time before it was replaced by modern synthetic materials.
Cultivation of the flax plant and manufacture of the linen yarn
The production from growing and harvesting the flax fiber to weaving the linen fabrics is a lengthy process. In contrast to wool, the raw material of which is simply washed, combed and spun, flax fibers must first be laboriously separated from their woody stalks and prepared for spinning the yarn.
In order to preserve the length of the fibres, the plants are not cut when harvested, but rather "pulled" out of the ground together with their roots. Flax is an annual plant and must be sown every year. The first step after drying the crop is therefore 'rippling', in which the bundles of plants are pulled through coarse metal combs to separate the seed pods from the stems and to untangle the straw. The seeds themselves are replanted again next season.
The stems are then placed in water to soften the woody parts. This process is called roasting and can be carried out in streams or water-filled basins, among other things. The oldest form, however, is dew roasting, in which the bundles of flax are laid out on a field over a period of six to eight weeks. Dew, rain and sun cause the pectins to decompose. This "plant glue" connects the flax fibers with the hard wood components of the plant. The fiber bundles can then be gently removed.
The straw flax is then either stacked on shelves in hot-air ovens or set up in bundles – so-called chapels – on the field and dried by the sun. In modern times, flax was also dried in ovens, which made it even easier to separate the woody components from the fibers. However, this procedure reportedly led to numerous city fires.
After drying, the "breaking" and "swinging" of the flax takes place. This loosens the connections between the fibers and the other parts of the stalk. The straw flax is placed in wooden folding devices or transported and broken by rollers. Small bundles are then pulled through corrugated combs again. This step serves to strip off the bent wood particles and short, tangled fibers. The remaining, long fiber bundles are now stretched into the hackle machine and pulled through ever finer needle fields. The fibers are sorted according to fineness and quality.
The hackled flax is first processed into flat ribbons by being placed in a system of stretching machines. The slivers gradually become finer and more even until they are spun into a coarse roving by the roving machine. The fine spinning machine then brings the wet linen yarn to the correct thread size. The spun yarns are dried and wound onto bobbins. Now they are ready to be sent to the weaving mill, where they are processed into high-quality linen on the looms.
Properties of a special natural fiber
The smooth, hollow fibers of the flax plant trap little air and allow it to flow easily through the fabric. They can absorb a lot of humidity and keep it on the surface. This peculiarity gives the fabric its bactericidal, dirt-repellent and cooling properties. Its breathability makes linen a popular fabric for the production of summer clothing, in addition to table and bed linen. The hypoallergenic properties of linen create an excellent microclimate and are also well suited for people with sensitive skin and respiratory allergies.
Also typical of linen is its low elasticity, which is responsible for the characteristic crinkled look. This gives the fabric its unique appearance. Linen is considered the strongest of all natural fibers. It is particularly tear-resistant and not very prone to wear and tear, which makes it very hard-wearing and durable. With the right care, you will be able to enjoy your favorite linen pieces for a long time.