#MaterialMondays is a series of informative (and not overwhelming, we promise!) posts that breaks down what’s what in fabrics. Our goal is to equip you with knowledge and tips that will inform your buying choices so that they are made with sustainability and the environment in mind. If you liked this post, be sure to share!
Post by Contributing Writer Iris Chau.
One of the best (if not the best) fabrics to wear during the hottest time of the year is linen. Good quality linen is one of the most breathable, light, comfortable, and durable fabrics out there, and it is a natural fiber, deriving from the flax plant. Not only that, but linen has resurfaced into the mainstream in recent years as a trend-forward fabric. It is used for a variety of garment categories such as jackets, dresses, skirts, trousers, jumpsuits, and classic button-ups—in addition to being used for bedding and upholstery. The attention linen has garnered in the fashion world is likely due to the consumers’ growing concern of fashion’s environmental impact, and “conscious clothing” as a key emerging trend. As consumers look for more environmentally-friendly style options, linen quickly revealed itself as one of the best contenders. Linen has typically been considered a “luxury” fabric, because of its higher cost of production and its lower accessibility (compared to cotton), but lately, it wouldn’t be surprising to find linen pieces even in fast fashion stores like Zara, Topshop, and Uniqlo.
WHERE DOES LINEN COME FROM?
Linen is made from the flax plant, a plant that does not require any pesticides to grow. The flax plant itself is a classic source of fiber that has been used to make materials for over six thousand years. Fibers are extracted from the plant by first cutting or pulling the plant from the ground, and then removing the seeds in a process known as “winnowing” or “ripping.” After being put out to dry for about two weeks, the plant is separated from the fiber in a process called “retting.” The fibers are then separated again by length, and the longest fibers are spun into yarn before being woven into fabric. Without any treatment or dyes, linen fabric is a husked tan color, resembling the flax plant.
Linen is one of the world’s oldest fabrics. It was used in ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt, and ancient Greece, where it was commonly used for clothing, bedding, and even mummification. Back then, it was considered a high-class fabric, reserved for royalty and upper-class people, as it was not an easy fabric to produce. Linen production was very labour intensive in terms of weaving as well as growing and cultivating the flax plant of which it comes from. Today, however, the flax plant is richly cultivated places like Northern France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, where there is moisture and frequent rain. Flax plants are also grown in China and Canada, but the European Union still grows 70% of all flax.
BENEFITS OF LINEN
Effective conductor of heat – all natural fibers, including linen, are excellent heat conductors and have natural insulatory properties. This means you won’t need to wear as many layers to keep warm.
Moisture wicking – As linen is known as a summer fabric, it will have to get you through hot, sweaty weather. Thankfully, it can do just that. Linen can absorb up to 20% of moisture before it starts to dampen. Moisture, like sweat, travels from your skin and evaporates from the fibers without the wearer even knowing.
Anti-bacterial – Linen was a popular material for bandages because it is anti-bacterial. Today, linen is used for towels for this reason as well. It prevents bacterial growth as the material itself is not suitable for germs/bacteria to breed. Stinky clothes after a hot day is a result of sweat interacting with the bacteria on your skin, so clothing made from anti-bacterial fabrics will smell less when you sweat, cutting off any chance of bacteria increasing as it reacts with the fibers of your clothing. Polyester or wool, on the other hand, will not do this.
Absorbs color better than other fabrics – Much of the chemical pollution in the fashion industry is due to the overwhelming demand for the dyeing of specific colors that are naturally unattainable. Thus, the ability for a fiber to absorb color is a crucial factor to think about. The more efficiently a fiber can retain color, the less chemicals are needed to penetrate the fiber, and less dye is used.
Lint free and anti static – Linen is resistant to dust (as well as resistant to many types of stains!) which makes it easy to care for, non-allergenic, and also last longer.
Fully biodegradable when untreated – When linen is free from harsh chemicals and fabric treatments, it is fully biodegradable over time.
Gets better with age – Linen will soften over the years, and the handfeel will only become silkier. It is pill resistant, and considering all the other benefits of this list combined, incredibly durable.
SETBACKS OF LINEN
While linen has its wonderful list of benefits, it also possesses some qualities that some people might deem as setbacks:
Not stretchy – linen naturally does not have any stretch, which is why it is more common to find linen clothes that are easy and flowy (think dresses, wide leg jumpsuits, a-line skirts and oversized tees.) This can, however, be a good thing because linen garments are able to retain their shape much better than garments with stretch.
Wrinkles easily – Wrinkles are also a natural quality of linen that some people do not like. Linen wrinkles quite easily (sometimes right after sitting down), which means it may require more steaming/ironing than other fibers. However, a lot of people find the “wrinkly” look to be one of linen’s best aesthetic qualities, because it shows off a natural, rustic quality.
More expensive – The “100% Linen” label is worth more than linen blends and cotton. Linen, being scarcer than cotton, and with its association to high quality upholstery, bedding, and men’s suiting, carries prestige. Just as real wool will cost more than its synthetic copycats, real linen will also cost more. This can be a setback, but thankfully, quality linen pieces can also often be found at thrift stores and consignment stores where it is more affordable (plus, buying second hand is better for the environment, too!)
Linen is considered one of the best sustainable material options for many reasons. First, flax requires less water to grow as opposed to cotton. Second, flax itself is very much so a multi-purpose plant—while the fibers are extracted to make fabric, the seeds are used to produce linseed oil, and flax seeds are a common ‘power food’ for consumption. In other words, the growing and harvesting of flax produces no waste. Even the shorter fibers that are extracted, being unsuitable/too short for yarn, will be made into paper, animal fodder, and bio-materials. In its ideal geographical environment, growing flax does not require any fertilizers, irrigation, herbicides, nor pesticides. This means that it will not negatively impact the ecosystem around them, and will not pollute nearby rivers and water systems. Third, the durability and timelessness of linen will keep it out of landfills—those who buy linen very rarely (or never) have to buy it twice.
Linen is a beautiful fabric and is certainly one of my personal favourites. The soft, drapey hand feel, rustic and naturally imperfect texture, and the long-lasting attributes of the material is absolutely worth the extra cost. While it is one of the best options for sustainable fabric, we as consumers still need to demand transparency from the companies of which our linen comes from. Even though flax plants do not require pesticides to grow, some places that do not have the ideal environment for flax plants may still have to use irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides. Also—it is important to buy linen pieces from environmentally intentional companies that are aware of linen as a sustainable option, rather than companies that are using linen for in greenwashing campaigns. That being said, do think twice before buying linen from fast fashion companies, and consider smaller, environmentally-minded companies (we’ve got a list below.) While it is wonderful to purchase linen, we want to ensure that our dollar goes to the right people who will continue to push for ecological and social good in the fashion industry. Now that you’re aware of all the benefits of linen and where it comes from, your next conscious purchase just might be a linen heritage piece—one that is guaranteed to keep you cool and stylish over the summer, naturally.
Do you have a linen piece in your closet you love? Share with us in the comments.
Check out this video on how linen is made, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert museum.
Ethical fashion brands with stunning linen pieces: