Hemp vs. Linen

31 08 2016

We are often asked for 100% hemp fabric in lieu of linen fabrics. We offer hemp and adore it, but it may not be the best eco choice.

Make no mistake – we love hemp, we sell hemp fabrics and we think the re-introduction of hemp as a crop would be a boon for American farmers and consumers.

But hemp that is used to produce hemp fabric via conventional methods – as opposed to GOTS methods – is a far inferior choice to any Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) or Oeko-Tex certified fabric. So the overriding difference is not between hemp and any other fiber, but between a certified fabric versus one that is not certified, because certification assures us that the fabric is free of any chemicals that can change your DNA, give you cancer or other dred diseases which can affect you in ways ranging from subtle to profound. The choice of GOTS also assures us that the mill which produced the fabric has water treatment in place, so these chemicals don’t pollute our groundwater – and that the mill pays fair wages to their workers who toil in safe conditions!

Now let’s look at some of the differences between hemp and linen:

First, do not be confused by the difference between the fiber and the cloth woven from that fiber – because the spinning of the yarn and the weaving of the cloth introduces many variables that have nothing to do with the fibers. Both hemp and flax (from which linen is derived) are made from fibers found in the stems of plants, and both are very laborious to produce. The strength and quality of both fibers are highly dependent on seed variety, the conditions during growth, time of harvest and manner of retting and other post-harvest handling.

Retting (or, really, rotting) is the microbial decomposition of the pectins which bind the fibers to the woody inner core of the plant stem. The old system of water or snow retting has given way to chemical retting, which in turn often shortens – which means weakens – the fibers. These short fibers are said to have been “cottonized” since cotton fibers are only about 1.5 inches long.

It’s important to note that there is very little to distinguish flax fibers from hemp fibers – they both have similar properties. Hemp’s fibers so closely resemble flax that a high-power microscope is needed to tell the difference. Without microscopic or chemical examination, the fibers can only be distinguished by the direction in which they twist upon wetting: hemp will rotate counterclockwise; flax, clockwise.

In general, hemp fiber bundles are longer than those of flax.   So the first point of differentiation is this: the length of the fibers. Long fibers translate into inherently more resilient and therefore durable yarns. Hemp fibers vary from 4 to about 7 feet in length, while linen is generally 1.5 to 3 feet in length. Other differences:

  • The color of flax fibers is described as yellowish-buff to gray, and hemp as yellowish-gray to dark brown.
  • Hemp is highly resistant to rotting, mildew, mold and salt water. Linen on the other hand is non-allergenic and insect-repellent.
  • Hemp is the most highly resistant natural fiber to ultraviolet light, so it won’t fade or disintegrate in sunlight. Linen too has excellent resistance to UV rays.
  • Hemp’s elastic recovery is very poor and less than linen; it stretches less than any other natural fiber.

The biggest difference between hemp and linen might be in the agricultural arena.

Hemp grows well without the use of chemicals because it has few serious pest problems, although the degree of immunity to attacking organisms has been greatly exaggerated.  Several insects and fungi specialize exclusively in hemp!  But despite this, the use of pesticides and fungicides are usually unnecessary to get a good yield. Hemp has a fiber yield that averages between 485 – 809 lbs., compared to flax, which averages just 323 – 465 lbs. on the same amount of land.   This yield translates into a high biomass, which can be converted into fuel in the form of clean-burning alcohol.

Farmers claim that hemp is a great rotation crop – it was sometimes grown the year prior to a flax crop because it left the land free of weeds and in good condition.   Hemp, it was said, is good for the soil, aerating and building topsoil. Hemp’s long taproot descends for three feet or more, and these roots anchor and protect the soil from runoff. Moreover, hemp does not exhaust the soil. Additionally, hemp can be grown for many seasons successively without impacting the soil negatively. In fact, this is done sometimes to improve soil tilth and clean the land of weeds.

The price of hemp in the market is far higher than for linen, despite hemp’s yields.   We have no idea why this is so. And finding organic hemp is becoming almost impossible, because hemp is usually grown by subsistence farmers who are loath to pay certification fees.

Yarns, made from the fibers, are graded from ‘A’, the best quality, to below ‘D’.   The number of twists per unit length is often (but not always) an indication of a stronger yarn.   In addition, the yarns can be single or plied – a plied yarn is combined with more than one strand of yarn. Next, the cloth can be woven from grade ‘A’ yarns with a double twist per unit length and double ply into a fabric where the yarns are tightly woven together into cloth. Or not.

But in general, there are many similarities between cloth made from hemp and cloth made from linen:

  • Both linen and hemp become soft and supple through handling, gaining elegance and creating a fluid drape.
  • Both hemp and linen are strong fibers – though most sources say hemp is stronger (by up to 8 times stronger) than linen (even though the real winner is spider silk!), but this point becomes moot due to the variables involved in spinning the fiber into yarn and then weaving into fabric.   The lifespan of hemp is the longest of all the natural fibers.
  • Both hemp and linen wrinkle easily.
  • Both hemp and linen absorb moisture. Hemp’s moisture retention is a bit more (12%) than linen’s (10 – 12%)
  • Both hemp and linen breathe – they release moisture back into the atmosphere and do not retain water.
  • Both hemp and linen are natural insulators: both have hollow fibers which means they’re cool in summer and warm in winter.
  • Both hemp and linen have anti-bacterial properties.
  • Both hemp and linen benefit from washing, becoming softer and more lustrous with each wash.
  • Both hemp and linen are resistant to moths and other insects.
  • Both hemp and linen absorb dyestuffs readily.
  • Both hemp and linen biodegrade.

The overriding difference is not between hemp and linen, but between a hemp OR linen fabric that has GOTS or Oeko-Tex certification and one that does not. That means that a conventional hemp fabric, which enjoys all the benefits of hemp’s attributes, also introduces unwanted chemicals into your life: such as formaldehyde, phthalates, heavy metals, endocrine disruptors and perhaps soil or fire retardants. The certified fabric is the better choice. If the choice is between a conventional hemp fabric and a certified linen fabric, we wouldn’t hesitate a second to choose the linen over the hemp, especially because hemp and linen are such close cousins.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





Should I choose a hemp or linen fabric?

5 08 2015

We are often asked for 100% hemp fabric in lieu of linen fabrics. We offer hemp and adore it, but it may not be the best eco choice.  Make no mistake – we love hemp, we sell hemp fabrics and we think the re-introduction of hemp as a crop would be a boon for American farmers and consumers.

But hemp that is used to produce hemp fabric via conventional methods – as opposed to GOTS methods – is an inferior choice to any GOTS certified fabric. So the overriding difference is not between hemp and any other fiber, but between a GOTS certified fabric versus one that is not GOTS certified, because GOTS certification assures us that the fabric is free of any chemicals that can change your DNA, give you cancer or another dread disease or affect you in other ways ranging from subtle to profound. It also assures us that the mill which produced the fabric has water treatment in place, so these chemicals don’t pollute our groundwater – and that the mill pays fair wages to their workers who toil in safe conditions!

The GOTS certification requires that the fiber used in the fabric be third party certified organic. Organic linen is more available and less expensive then organic hemp, so we often use linen instead of hemp in our fabrics. Using organic linen instead of organic hemp keeps the price lower for you and you do not give up any performance characteristics at all.   Allow me to say that once more: You do not give up any performance at all.

To begin with, do not be confused by the difference between the fiber and the cloth woven from that fiber – because the spinning of the yarn and the weaving of the cloth introduces many variables that have nothing to do with the fibers. Both hemp and flax (from which linen is derived) are made from fibers found in the stems of plants, and both are very laborious to produce. The strength and quality of both fibers are highly dependent on seed variety, the conditions during growth, time of harvest and manner of retting and other post-harvest handling.

Yarns, made from the fibers, are graded from ‘A’, the best quality, to below ‘D’ and the number of twists per unit length is often (but not always) an indication of a stronger yarn.   In addition, the yarns can be single or plied – a plied yarn is combined with more than one strand of yarn. Next, the cloth can be woven from grade ‘A’ yarns with double twist per unit length and double ply into a fabric where the yarns are tightly woven together from cloth that is lightweight or heavier, producing a superior fabric.  Or not.

Now let’s look at some of the differences between hemp and linen:

Hemp and linen fibers are basically interchangeable – there is very little to distinguish flax fibers from hemp fibers.  In fact,  hemp’s fibers so closely resemble flax that a high-power microscope is needed to tell the difference. Without microscopic or chemical examination, the fibers can only be distinguished by the direction in which they twist upon wetting: hemp will rotate counterclockwise; flax, clockwise.  And in general, they tend to have the same properties.

In general, there are many similarities between cloth made from hemp and cloth made from linen:

  • Both linen and hemp become soft and supple through handling, gaining elegance and creating a fluid drape.
  • Both hemp and linen are strong fibers – though most sources say hemp is stronger (by up to 8 times) than linen (even though the real winner is spider silk), but this point becomes moot due to the variables involved in spinning the fiber into yarn and then weaving into fabric.   The lifespan of hemp is the longest of all the natural fibers.
  • Both hemp and linen wrinkle easily.
  • Both hemp and linen absorb moisture. Hemp’s moisture retention is a bit more (12%) than linen’s (10 – 12%)
  • Both hemp and linen breathe.
  • Both hemp and linen are natural insulators: both have hollow fibers which means they’re cool in summer and warm in winter.
  • Both hemp and linen have anti-bacterial properties.
  • Both hemp and linen benefit from washing, becoming softer and more lustrous with each wash.
  • Both hemp and linen are resistant to moths and other insects.
  • Both hemp and linen absorb dyestuffs readily.
  • Both hemp and linen biodegrade.

In general, hemp fiber bundles are longer than those of flax.   So the first point of differentiation is this: the length of the fibers. Hemp fibers vary from 4 to about 7 feet in length, while linen is general 1.5 to 3 feet in length. Other differences:

  • The color of flax fibers is described as yellowish-buff to gray, and hemp as yellowish-gray to dark brown.
  • Hemp is highly resistant to rotting, mildew, mold and salt water.
  • Hemp is also highly resistant to ultraviolet light, so it won’t fade or disintegrate in sunlight.
  • Hemp’s elastic recovery is very poor and less than linen; it stretches less than any other natural fiber.

The biggest difference between hemp and linen might be in the agricultural arena: Hemp grows well without the use of chemicals because it has few serious pest problems, although the degree of immunity to attacking organisms has been greatly exaggerated.  Several insects and fungi specialize exclusively in hemp!  But despite this, the use of pesticides and fungicides are usually unnecessary to get a good yield. Hemp has a fiber yield that averages between 485 – 809 lbs., compared to flax, which averages just 323 – 465 lbs. on the same amount of land.  This yield translates into a high biomass, which can be converted into fuel in the form of clean-burning alcohol.

Farmers claim that hemp is a great rotation crop – it was sometimes grown the year prior to a flax crop because it left the land free of weeds and in good condition.   Hemp, it was said, is good for the soil, aerating and building topsoil. Hemp’s long taproot descends for three feet or more, and these roots anchor and protect the soil from runoff. Moreover, hemp does not exhaust the soil. Additionally, hemp can be grown for many seasons successively without impacting the soil negatively. In fact, this is done sometimes to improve soil tilth and clean the land of weeds.

The price of hemp in the market is far higher than for linen, despite hemp’s yields.   We have no idea why this is so.

The overriding difference is not between hemp and linen, but between a hemp OR linen fabric that has a GOTS certification and one that does not. That means that a conventional hemp fabric, which enjoys all the benefits of hemp’s attributes, also introduces unwanted chemicals into your life: such as formaldehyde, phthalates, heavy metals, endocrine disruptors and perhaps soil or fire retardants.   The GOTS certified fabric is the better choice. If the choice is between a conventional hemp fabric and a GOTS certified linen fabric, we wouldn’t hesitate a second to choose the linen over the hemp, especially because hemp and linen are such close cousins.

 

 

 

 

 

 





What can be considered the “good” chemicals in textile processing?

9 02 2011

We’re often asked if ALL the chemicals used in textile processing are harmful.  And the answer is (surprisingly maybe)  no!   Many chemicals are used, many benign, but as with everything these days there are caveats.

Let’s look at the chemical that is used  most often in the textile industry:  salt.  That’s right.  Common table salt.  Safe, natural salt is used in textile dyeing.

Salt shaker painting by Jeff Hayes

The way the dyestuff bonds to the fibers is very important – and the most permanent, wash fast dyes are the most tightly attached to the fiber molecules (called reactive dyes).  Here’s how salt comes into the picture:

To dye a fabric made of a cellulosic fiber (i.e., cotton, hemp, linen) or its close cousin (viscose),  the fabric is put into water, where its surface gets covered in negative ionic charges.  The reactive dyes used most often to dye cellulosic fabrics also develops a negative charge, so the fibers actually repel the dye – like two magnets repelling each other.   If we try to dye a cellulosic fabric without using  salt, the dye molecules just roll off the surface of the fibers and the fabric does not show much color change.

But when salt is added to the water, the solution splits into positive sodium ions (Na+) and negative chlorine ions (Cl-).  The  positive Na+  ions then dive into the surface of the fabric to neutralize the negative charge.

The dye molecules are then attracted to the fiber by weak Van der Waals forces and as the dyes get close to the fiber molecules, the salt acts like a glue to hold the dyes in place.  If we add alkali, the dyestuff will permanently grab hold of the fiber and become a part of the fiber molecule rather than remaining as an independent chemical  entity.

The color fastness of reactive dyes is so good that  it’s no wonder that they have become so widely used.  And natural salt has been crucial to their success.

We sprinkle salt on our foods – indeed salt is essential for life itself.  But (there is always a “but”) the “dose makes the poison”  – and the textile industry uses a LOT of salt!

The concentrations to suppress those negative ions can be as high as 100 gm per liter.  In the worst cases, 1 kg of salt is used to apply reactive dye to 1 kg of fabric.  Think of the billions of yards of fabric that’s produced each year:   In Europe alone, 1 million tons of salt is discharged into our waterways each year.[1] In areas where salt is discharged into the ecosystem, it takes a long, long time for affected areas to recover, especially in areas of sparse rainfall – such as Tirupur, India.

Tirupur is one of the world’s centers for clothing production , home of 765 dyeing and bleaching industries.  These dyehouses  had been dumping untreated effluent into the Noyyal River for years, rendering the water unsuitable or irrigation – or drinking.   In 2005, the government shut down 571 dyehouses  because of the effluent being discharged into the Noyyal.  The mill owners said they simply couldn’t afford to put pollution measures into place.   The industry is too important to India to keep the mills closed for long, so the government banned the discharge of salt and asked for an advance from the mills before allowing them to re-open.     But … on February 4, 2011, the Madras high court ordered 700 dye plants to be shut down because of the damage the effluent was doing to the local environment.  Sigh.  (Read more about Tirupur here.)

Unfortunately, the salt in textile effluent is not made harmless by treatment plants and can pass straight through  to our rivers even if treated.  This salt filled effluent can wreak havoc with living organisms.

There are some new “low salt” dyes that require only half the amount of “glue”, but these dyes are not widely used because they’re expensive – and manufacturers are following our lead in demanding ever cheaper fabrics.

Recycling the salt is possible, and this has been used by many of the dyers in Tirupur, and elsewhere, who operate zero discharge facilities.  The effluent is cleaned and then the salt is recovered using an energy intensive process to evaporate the water and leave the solid, re-useable salt.

This sounds like a good idea – it reduces the pollution levels – but the carbon footprint goes through the roof, so salt recovery isn’t necessarily the best option.  In fact, in some areas of the world where water is plentiful and the salt can be diluted in the rivers adequately, it may be better to simply discharge salt than to recover it.

But the best option is to avoid salt altogether.

Next week we’ll look at how to do that.


[1] Dyeing for a change: Current Conventions and New Futures in the Textile Color Industry (2006, July) www.betterthinking.co.uk





Linen

30 06 2010

Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant, Linum usitatissimum L., which is a delicate and graceful annual that stands about 3 feet high and produces attractive blue flowers. Its Latin name means “most useful,” and for good reason. Though technically a wildflower, flax  has been cultivated for thousands of years for a wide variety of important uses.  Common flax was one of the earliest domesticated plants.  A cousin of hemp, cannabis sativa L., flax is also known as a “bast” plant, meaning the fiber is collected from the inner bark, or bast,  of the steam. 

Flax  grows best at northern temperate latitudes, in cool,  humid climates and within moist, well-plowed soil.

Today, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Spain, Russia, Egypt and China are the foremost producers of flax for commercial textile purposes.   China is also a major buyer of raw flax for processing, with imports of 60 000 tons a year, including most of Europe’s flax fibers. Bulk linen production has shifted to Eastern Europe and China, but niche producers in Ireland, Italy and Belgium continue to supply the market for high quality fabrics in Europe, Japan and the USA.

There are two main types of flax grown worldwide:  fiber flax and seed flax.

FIBER FLAX:

Flax is one of the oldest fiber crops in the world.  It was used by the ancient Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and Hebrews for food, clothing and medicine.

The use of flax fiber in the manufacturing of cloth in northern Europe dates back to Neolithic times. In North America, flax was introduced by the Puritans, and today has become an essential commercial crop grown throughout the Midwest.

Today, flax is used to make linen cloth,  and it’s usually an expensive textile, produced in relatively small quantities.  Linen fabric maintains a strong traditional niche among high quality household textiles – bed linen, furnishing fabrics, and interior decoration accessories.  More than 70% of linen goes to clothing manufacture, where it is valued for its exceptional coolness in hot weather – the legendary linen suit is a symbol of breezy summer elegance.

Linen has a long staple (i.e., individual fiber length).  The best grades of flax  are used for fine fabrics such as damasks, lace and sheeting. Shorter flax fibers produce heavier yarns suitable for kitchen towels, sails, tents and canvas.  Lower fiber grades are used as reinforcement and filler in thermoplastic composites and resins used in automotive interior substrates, twine, rope,  furniture and other consumer products.  Flax fiber is also a raw material for the high-quality paper industry for the use of printed banknotes and rolling paper for cigarettes and tea bags.   Linen fabric is one of the preferred traditional supports for artists canvas. In the United States cotton is popularly used instead because linen is many times more expensive, restricting its use to professional painters. In Europe however, linen is usually the only fabric support available in art shops. Linen is preferred to cotton for its strength, durability and archival  integrity.

SEED FLAX:

Flax seed is grown for human and animal consumption. Flax seeds can be eaten raw or cooked, cracked or whole, and can be ground into flour. They are often sprinkled on top of bread, cooked into foods like chips, muffins and cakes or added to granola cereal. Flax seeds contain high amounts of Omega-3, 6 and 9 fatty acids, which are believed to reduce cholesterol, boost the immune system and lower the risk of heart disease. They also contain potassium, magnesium, fiber and protein, and make a good natural laxative.                    

Flax seed oil (also called linseed oil) is used for culinary as well as industrial purposes.  A good source of essential omega-3 fatty acids, the oil is believed to provide benefits to arthritis and lupus patients by reducing inflammation.   For industry, it serves as a pigment binder for oil paint and a drying agent for paints, lacquers and inks. It is sometimes used as a wood finish, in varnishes, printing inks, and soaps and can be combined with cork to make linoleum.

Once oil is cold pressed from flax seeds, the husks, which are high in protein,  are often used as feed for chickens and other livestock. The seeds provide animals with much needed fiber and protein. Eggs from chickens that were fed flax seeds are  purported to be high in omega fatty acids and have added health benefits.

Flax  fibers range in length up to 90 cm, and average 12 to 16 microns in diameter.  They are not as long as hemp, which has fibers that measure from 90 cm to 460 cm, yet they are much longer than cotton fibers, which measure only as much as 3.5 cm.
Harvesting:

There are three degrees in the ripening of the flax grown to make linen: green, yellow and brown. The yellow has proved to be the most suitable for fiber production. Flax that is pulled too early – green – produces very fine but weak fibers. On the other hand, in overripe flax – brown – the stems are strong but brittle and produce too high a proportion of undesirable short fibers (‘tow’). When the flax is yellow, the fibers are long and supple, and therefore ideal for further processing.  (This is where we get the term “flaxen” to describe a yellow haired person.) The plant must be harvested as soon as it appears ready since any delay results in linen without the prized luster.  It is important that the stalk not be cut in the harvesting process but removed from the ground intact; if the stalk is cut the sap is lost, and this affects the quality of the linen.

These plants are often pulled out of the ground by hand, grasped just under the seed heads and gently tugged. The tapered ends of the stalk must be preserved so that a smooth yarn may be spun. The stalks are tied in bundles (called beets) and are ready for extraction of the flax fiber in the stalk. However, fairly efficient machines can pull the plants from the ground as well.

Once the plants have been harvested, the fibers must be released from the stalk.  This process is called “retting” – actually a process of rotting away the woody bark of the plant which also loosens the pectin or gum that attaches the fiber to the stem:

  • Retting may be accomplished in a variety of ways. In some parts of the world, linen is still retted by hand, using moisture  to rot  away the bark. The stalks are spread on dewy slopes, submerged in stagnant pools of water, or placed in running streams. Workers must wait for the water to begin rotting or fermenting the stem—sometimes more than a week or two. However, most manufacturers today use chemicals for retting. The plants are placed in a solution either of alkali or oxalic acid,  then pressurized and boiled. This method is easy to monitor and rather quick, although some believe that chemical retting adversely affects the color and strength of the fiber and hand retting produces the finest linen. Vat or mechanical retting requires that the stalks be submerged in vats of warm water, hastening the decomposition of the stem. The flax is then removed from the vats and passed between rollers to crush the bark as clean water flushes away the pectin and other impurities.
  • If flax is not fully retted, the stalk of the plant cannot be separated from the fiber without injuring the delicate fiber. Thus, retting has to be carefully executed. Too little retting, or under retting,  may not permit the fiber to be separated from the stalk with ease; it produces a coarse yarn suitable only for ropes.  Too much retting (over retting or rotting) will weaken fibers so they will have limited application.  The value of a batch can vary by 100% depending on the quality of the retting.
  • After the retting process, the flax plants are squeezed and allowed to dry out before they undergo the process called breaking. In order to crush the decomposed stalks, they are sent through fluted rollers which break up the stem and separate the exterior fibers from the bast that will be used to make linen. This process breaks the stalk into small pieces of bark called shives. Then, the shives are scutched. The scutching machine removes the broken shives with rotating paddles, finally releasing the flax fiber from stalk.
  • The fibers are now combed and straightened in preparation for spinning. This separates the short fibers (called tow and used for making more coarse, sturdy goods) from the longer and more luxurious linen fibers. The very finest flax fibers are called line or dressed flax, and the fibers may be anywhere from 12-20 in (30.5-51 cm) in length, but first class fibers are at least 60 cm.   Color of light grey, steel grey and silver grey are considered the best.

Spinning:

  • Line fibers (long linen fibers) are put through machines called spreaders, which combine fibers of the same length, laying the fibers parallel so that the ends overlap, creating a sliver. The sliver passes through a set of rollers, making a  roving which is ready to spin.
  • The linen rovings, resembling tresses of blonde hair, are put on a spinning frame and drawn out into thread and ultimately wound on bobbins or spools. Many such spools are filled on a spinning frame at the same time. The fibers are formed into a continuous ribbon by being pressed between rollers and combed over fine pins. This operation constantly pulls and elongates the ribbon-like linen until it is given its final twist for strength and wound on the bobbin. While linen is a strong fiber, it is rather inelastic. Thus, the atmosphere within the spinning factory must be both humid and warm in order to render the fiber easier to work into yarn. In this hot, humid factory the linen is wet spun in which the roving is run through a hot water bath in order to bind the fibers together thus creating a fine yarn. Dry spinning does not use moisture for spinning. This produces rough, uneven yarns that are used for making inexpensive twines or coarse yarns.
  • These moist yarns are transferred from bobbins on the spinning frame to large take-up reels. These linen reels are taken to dryers, and when the yarn is dry, it is wound onto bobbins for weaving or wound into yarn spools of varying weight. The yarn now awaits transport to the loom for weaving into fabrics, toweling, or for use as twine or rope.

A great concern to the environment is the chemicals used in retting. These chemicals must be neutralized before being released into water supplies. The stalks, leaves, seed pods, etc. are natural organic materials and are not hazardous unless impregnated with much of the chemicals left behind in the retting process. The only other concern with the processing of linen is the smell—it is said that hand-retted linen produces quite a stench and is most unpleasant to experience.

The first flax-spinning mill was opened in England in 1787, but only in 1812 was linen successfully woven with power looms. The linen industry suffered in relation to cotton because many textile inventions were not applicable to linen.   Although linen exceeds cotton in coolness, luster, strength, and length of fiber, the expense of production limits its use.

The decrease in use of linen may be attributed to the increasing quality of synthetic fibers, and a decreasing appreciation of buyers for very high quality yarn and fabric. Very little top-quality linen is produced now, and most is used in low volume applications like hand weaving and as an art material.

Over 90% of the world’s spinning equipment are designed to quickly and effectively spin fibers based on the length and diameter of cotton fibers.  This is referred to as the “cotton” system.  No other spinning system is as productive or cost-effective as the cotton system.  Flax fibers can be broken down into their shortest components, and this is called cottonization and the product is called cottonized flax.  Flax has traditionally been cottonized using mechanical systems (i.e., mechanical cottonization) but it can also be done using enzymes, steam explosion and ultra-sound.  This “cottonization” is done to be able to spin linen fibers on cotton machines – it means the process is quicker and requires less equipment.  However, the finished fibers often lose the characteristic linen look.

The Living Linen Project was set up in 1995 as an Oral Archive of the knowledge of the Irish linen industry still available within a nucleus of people who were formerly working in the industry in Ulster.  There is a long history of linen in Ireland.

For those of you with linguistic interests, linen has given rise to a number of words:

  • line, derived from the use of a linen threadto determine a straight line;
  • liniment, due to the use of finely ground flax seeds as a mild irritant applied to the skin to ease muscle pain
  • lining, because linen was often used to create a lining for wool and leather clothing
  • lingerie, via French, originally denotes underwear made of linen
  • linseed oil, an oil derived from flaxseed
  • linoleum, a floor covering made from linseed oil and other materials

CHARACTERISTICS of Linen:

Linen is among the strongest of the vegetable fibers, with 2 to 3 times the strength of cotton.  It is a very durable, strong fabric, and one of the few that are stronger wet than dry. It is smooth, making the finished fabric lint free, and gets softer the more it is washed.  The fibers  are resistant to damage from abrasion.

However, constant creasing in the same place in sharp folds will tend to break the linen threads. This wear can show up in collars, hems, and any area that is iron creased during laundering. Linen has poor elasticity and does not spring back readily, explaining why it wrinkles so easily.

Linen fabrics have a high natural luster; their natural color ranges between shades of ivory,  ecru,  tan, or grey. Pure white linen is created by heavy bleaching. Linen typically has a thick and thin character with a crisp and textured feel to it, but it can range from stiff and rough, to soft and smooth.

When freed from impurities, linen is highly absorbent and will quickly remove perspiration from the skin. Linen is a stiff fabric and is less likely to cling to the skin; when it billows away, it tends to dry out and become cool so that the skin is being continually touched by a cool surface.  It’s valued for its exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather.

Mildew, perspiration, and bleach can also damage the fabric, but it is resistant to moths and  carpet beetles. Linen is relatively easy to take care of, since it resists dirt and stains, has no lint or pilling tendency, and can be dry cleaned, machine washed or steamed. It can withstand high temperatures, and has only moderate initial shrinkage.

Linen should not be dried too much by tumble drying: it is much easier to iron when damp. Linen wrinkles very easily, and so some more formal linen garments require ironing often, in order to maintain perfect smoothness. Nevertheless the tendency to wrinkle is often considered part of the fabric’s particular “charm”, and a lot of modern linen garments are designed to be air dried on a good hanger and worn without the necessity of ironing.

A characteristic often associated with contemporary linen yarn is the presence of “slubs”, or small knots which occur randomly along its length. In the past, these slubs were considered defects associated with low quality. The finest linen had very consistent diameter threads, with no slubs.  Today, however, the presence of slubs is considered appealing, and fashion dictates that even the finest linens have these slubs.