Linen yarn is spun from the long fibers found just behind the bark in the multi-layer stem of the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum). In order to retrieve the fibers from the plant, the woody stem and the inner pith (called pectin), which holds the fibers together in a clump, must be rotted away. The cellulose fiber from the stem is spinnable and is used in the production of linen thread, cordage, and twine. From linen thread or yarn, fine toweling and dress fabrics may be woven. Linen fabric is a popular choice for warm-weather clothing. It feels cool in the summer but appears crisp and fresh even in hot weather. Household linens truly made of linen become more supple and soft to the touch with use; thus, linen was once the bedsheet of choice.
While the flax plant is not difficult to grow, it flourishes best in cool, humid climates and within moist, well-plowed soil. The process for separating the flax fibers from the plant's woody stock is laborious and painstaking and must be done in an area where labor is plentiful and relatively inexpensive. It is remarkable that while there is some mechanization to parts of the fiber preparation, some fiber preparation is still done by hand as it has been for centuries. This may be due to the care that must be taken with the fragile flax fibers inside the woody stalk, which might be adversely affected by mechanized processing.
Flax remains under cultivation for linen fiber in a number of countries including Poland, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the British Isles. However, the grade of fiber the plants yield in different parts of the world varies. Many believe that Belgium grows the finest-quality flax fibers in the world, with Scottish and Irish linen not far behind. There is no commercial production of linen fabric in any significant quantity in the United States except, perhaps, by individual hand spinners and hand weavers. Thus, the linen fabrics Americans use and wear are nearly all imported into the country from one of these flax-growing and weaving countries.
Flax has been cultivated for its remarkable fiber, linen, for at least five millennia. The spinning and weaving of linen is depicted on wall paintings of ancient Egypt. As early as 3,000 b.c., the fiber was processed into fine white fabric (540 threads to the inch—finer than anything woven today) and wrapped around the mummies of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs. Mentioned several times in the Bible, it has been used as a cool, comfortable fiber in the Middle East for centuries as well. Ancient Greeks and Romans greatly valued it as a commodity. Finnish traders are believed to have introduced flax to Northern Europe where it has been under cultivation for centuries.
Both wool and linen were tremendously important fibers in the New World. Relatively easy to grow, American settlers were urged to plant a small plot of flax as early as the seventeenth century. While flax is easy to grow, settlers knew all too well the tedious chore of processing the woody stalks for its supple linen. Before the industrial revolution much sturdy, homemade clothing was woven from linen cultivated, processed, spun, dyed, woven, and sewn by hand. It may be argued that until the eighteenth century, linen was the most important textile in the world.
By the late eighteenth century, cotton became the fiber that was most easily and inexpensively processed and woven in the mechanized British and New England textile mills. By the 1850s, linen production had virtually been abandoned in the United States because it was so much cheaper to buy the factory-made cotton. Some New Englanders of Scot or Irish background continued to cultivate some flax for processing into linen used for fancy domestic linens such as bedsheets, toweling, and decorative tableclothes as their ancestors had for centuries. However, most Americans abandoned the cultivation of the plant in this country and instead chose cheap cotton that was carded, spun, woven, and roller-printed for just pennies a yard. Thereafter and until recently, a different variety of flax plant was raised in this country not for its linen fibers but for its seeds which exude a useful vegetable oil known as linseed oil when pressed.
All that is needed to turn flax fiber into linen, and then spin and weave the linen fibers into linen fabric is the cellulose flax fiber from the stem of the flax plant. The process for separating the fibers from the woody stalk can use either water or chemicals, but these are ultimately washed away and are not part of the finished material.
The manufacture of linen yarn requires no special design processes. All that has to be determined prior to manufacturing is the thickness of the yarn to be spun. That will depend on the grade of linen in production and the demands of the customer.
This is a European "flax wheel" used to spin flax into linen thread within the home. Folklore tells us that it was brought by Henry Ford's Irish grandmother to the New World; it was one of the few family keepsakes Ford had from his Irish ancestors. In fact, it was not unusual for the Scots or Irish to bring such wheels to this country. The British Isles have a long and proud linen tradition, and even decades after others abandoned linen production for cotton in the New World the Irish and Scots here tenaciously clung to their linen-making traditions.
Ford's grandmother placed unspun flax on the tall, vertical, turned distaff and then push the treadle with her foot to power the wheel. The bobbin and flyer mounted horizontally in the center of the wheel would spin the flax and wind it on the bobbin at the same time. The rather small wheel below the bobbin required the spinner to treadle rafher fast to keep it moving and because of the small wheel this spinning wheel was not a popular style. It is lovely to look at, though, as this flax wheel is rather fancy, with inlaid bone or ivory set within the wheel. Some refer to this type of European spinning wheel as a "castle" or "parlor" wheel because of its lovely inlays and turnings.
Nancy EV Bryk
- 1 It takes about 100 days from seed planting to harvesting of the flax plant. Flax cannot endure very hot weather; thus, in many countries, the planting of seed is figured from the date or time of year in which the flax must be harvested due to heat and the growers count back 100 days to determine a date for planting. In some areas of the world, flax is sown in winter because of heat in early spring. In commercial production, the land is plowed in the spring then worked into a good seedbed by discing, harrowing, and rolling. Flax seeds must be shallowly planted. Seeds may be broadcast by hand, but the
seed must be covered over with soil. Machines may also plant the seed in rows.
Flax plants are poor competitors with weeds. Weeds reduce fiber yields and increase the difficulty in harvesting the plant. Tillage of the soil reduces weeds as do herbicides. When the flax plants are just a few inches high, the area must be carefully weeded so as not to disturb the delicate sprouts. In three months, the plants are straight, slender stalks that may be 2-4 ft (61-122 cm) in height with small blue or white fibers. (Flax plants with blue flowers yield the finest linen fibers.)
- 2 After about 90 days, the leaves wither, the stem turns yellow and the seeds turn brown, indicating it is time to harvest the plant. The plant must be pulled as soon as it appears brown as any delay results in linen without the prized luster. It is imperative 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. These 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.
Releasing the Fiber from the stalk
- 3 The plant is passed through coarse combs, which removes the seeds and leaves from the plant. This process, called rippling, is mechanized in many of the flax-producing countries.
- 4 The woody bark surrounding the flax fiber is decomposed by water or chemical retting, which loosens the pectin or gum that attaches the fiber to the stem. 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 may not permit the fiber to be separated from the stalk with ease. Too much retting or rotting will weaken fibers.
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 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.
- 5 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.
- 6 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.
- 7 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.
- 8 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 yarn that are used for making inexpensive twines or coarse yarns.
- 9 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 standard measure of flax yarn is the cut. It is based on the measure of 1 lb (453.59 g) of flax spun to make 300 yd (274.2 m) of yarn being equal to one cut. If 1 lb (453.59 g) of flax is spun into 600 yd (548.4 m), then it is a "no. 2 cut." The higher the cut, the finer the yarn becomes. The yarn now awaits transport to the loom for weaving into fabrics, toweling, or for use as twine or rope.
Of greatest concern are 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.
Where to Learn More
The Irish Linen Guild. Irish Linen: The Fabric of Elegance. NY: Elliott & Nelson, 1945.
Jerde, Judith. Encyclopedia of Textiles. NY: Facts on File Inc., 1992.
Koob, Katharine. Linen Making in New England. North Andover, MA: Merrimack Valley Textile Museum, 1978.
Calhoun, Wheeler and Lee Kirschner. "The Continuous Thread: From Flax Seed to Linen Cloth." Spin-Off Magazine (March 1983): 28-35.
Linen (flax) is considered to be one of the oldest textile fibers. Linen, the commonly used term for flax, a bast fiber, comes from the stem of the flax plant. Flax plants are either raised for their fiber or for the linseed oil harvested from flax seeds. Scientists have traced linen textiles to prehistoric times. Linen cloth was found among the artifacts of Swiss Lake Dwellers dating from 8000 b.c.e. When Tutankhamen's tomb was opened, linen curtains placed in the tomb circa 1250 b.c.e. were still identifiable. Linen was introduced to the Roman Republic by Phoenician traders who originally came from the eastern Mediterranean region. As the Roman Empire spread, so did the use of linen textiles. By the Middle Ages, German and Russian regions were major sources of fiber, while Northern Ireland, Belgium, England, Scotland, and the Netherlands established industries well known for production of linen textiles. It is from this historical development that Irish Linen became a household name and continues in 2004 as a label associated with genuine linen fiber content.
Linen production in North America, and then in Europe, became less important due to an emphasis on producing cotton that began in the eighteenth century. Argentina and Japan joined in production of linen midway into the twentieth century and production in the early twenty-first century extends to New Zealand and China. Russia, Poland, Northern Ireland, Egypt, France, and Belgium are the key producers of linen for the global marketplace. The limitation of requiring hand labor to produce linen fiber, compared to the ongoing mechanization of cotton, also contributed to limited production of linen goods.
Processing Flax Fiber
Linen is cellulosic and thus has aesthetic, comfort, and performance characteristics reminiscent of cotton and rayon textiles. These include high absorbency, low insulation, a tendency to be cool in hot temperatures. Linen textiles are additionally famous for their ability to "wick," a form of moisture transport known for providing a cooling effect in hot temperatures via drying quickly. Linen
is not subject to linting, the shedding of fibers that can result in bits of fiber lying on the surface of the textile. It is therefore ideal for drying dishes and for appearance retention in apparel. While twice the strength of cotton, linen is highly subject to wrinkling and thus is reputed to produce "prestigious wrinkles." Wrinkling is diminished when fibers are long and fine, and yarns are flexible. Wrinkle-resistant finishes have been applied to many cellulosic fibers as another way to reduce this tendency to wrinkle.
Natural colors for linen fibers include buff and gray. White and pure colors are obtained through bleaching. Highly bleached textiles have lower strength and durability than those with natural color or tonal variations of color resulting when linen is not heavily bleached before dyeing. Dyeing linen is challenging because fibers resist absorbing dyes and fade easily. It has become a tradition that linen textiles are quite often in the buff, tan, and gray colors associated with the look of linen.
Dirt and stains are resisted by flattened smooth surfaces. Linen has high heat resistance, is stronger wet than dry, and withstands cleaning, pressing, and creasing very successfully. Abrasion can break fibers on creases due to low resiliency. Linen textiles are flammable and are subject to damage from mildew, perspiration, bleach, and silverfish.
Linen in Fashion Across Time
Knitwear has considerable design potential for linen apparel. The flexibility of the knit structure compensates for linen's tendency to wrinkle, yet the textile retains all the comfort factors of natural linen.
Many fabrications appear to be linen. By achieving the visual effect of linen, many textiles are called linen even when fiber content includes little or no linen fiber. For example, textiles labeled linen are often actually either rayon or polyester, or a blend of both fibers. These two fibers that have great propensity to imitate the prestigious look of linen while lowering the cost and sometimes increasing performance in terms of wrinkling and shrinkage without losing the "look of linen." Rayon textiles come a close second with regard to the absorbency, feel on the skin, and similar tendency to wrinkle. Polyester textiles can eliminate the need for ironing. Raw silk and linen suiting textiles can have a quite similar visual aesthetic, yet touching either textile reveals that linen will always have a crisper and dryer feel than silk. Linen supports keeping the body cool, while raw silk is known for keeping the body warm.
Another fiber that has been widely used in imitating linen is ramie. Ramie (also known as China grass due to its origin in China and Asia) has much of the look of linen but is not subject to import quotas, as is linen. Therefore, it is commonplace to find ramie instead of linen as the fiber content for a great many "linen" textiles. Ramie is naturally white so can be dyed a broader range of colors more easily than linen, and thus the products can be stronger since less processing is needed to reach the final product. There is a tendency for these relatively shorter fibers (from 6–8 inches) to produce textiles that have an inherent scratchiness rather than the smoothness of linen. Thus, ramie products tend to be more successful as interior textile products. With the end of fiber quotas, it is expected there will be a moderation in the use of ramie in linen-like products as designers seek creation of high-quality goods.
See alsoRamie .
Collier, B., and P. Tortora. Understanding Textiles. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 2000.
Hatch, K. Textile Science. Minneapolis: West Publishing, 1993.
Kadolph, S., and A. Langford. Textiles. 9th ed. New York: Prentice-Hall, 2002.
Carol J. Salusso
A proto-industrial phase saw the introduction of limited mechanization. Scutching mills, using water-power and operating on the same principle as the threshing-machine, greatly raised productivity in the preparatory stages. The poet Robert Burns worked in such a mill at Irvine in Ayrshire. Later stages of production, spinning and weaving, were highly labour-intensive domestic activities, co-ordinated by entrepreneurs, whose networks, in many instances, radiated throughout the surrounding countryside from centres like Nottingham, Leeds, Manchester, Belfast, Glasgow, and Dundee.
With the adoption of machinery, initially developed for the cotton industry, spinning became increasingly factory-based and, with greater use of steam-power, more concentrated in urban centres. Technological lags retarded the mechanization of weaving, but when it caught up in the early 19th cent., it led to the demise of hand-loom weaving. Reorganization led to even greater localization around Belfast, Paisley, and Dundee and to increased specialization, with fine linen being produced mainly in Ulster and the west of Scotland, and coarser linen in the east of Scotland. Bleaching, which had become a specialized trade, was also mechanized and became more efficient following the development of chemical bleaching. Belfast became the major centre of production with a large proportion destined for overseas markets. Paisley specialized in fine linen and linen thread, its famous ‘Paisley pattern’ prints derived from imported Indian designs. A significant spin-off in Dundee was the development of the jute industry, which expanded rapidly during the 19th cent. to create ‘Juteopolis’, as the city became known.
During the 20th cent. linen, like other textile industries, contracted in the face of foreign competition. Having experienced painful rationalization and modernization following the depression and the Second World War, it continued production on a reduced scale in its long-established locations, most notably in Ulster.
LINEN INDUSTRY. This industry originated in colonial America, where farmers raised flax to make linen clothing. Some colonies subsidized linen's manufacture into sailcloth. For two centuries, dressed flax and yarn were common articles of barter—homespun was familiar merchandise in country trade, and linsey-woolsey, made of flax and wool, was a common clothing fabric.
The cotton gin and Arkwright machinery helped cotton displace flax, for, after their invention, few large linen mills succeeded. Most of those that survived manufactured thread and canvas. Civil War cotton shortages stimulated efforts to revive the industry, but high costs prevented its extension. While some linen goods still are manufactured in the United States, most are imported.
Victor S.Clark/c. w.
lin·en / ˈlinin/ • n. cloth woven from flax. ∎ household articles and garments such as sheets made, or originally made, of linen. ORIGIN: Old English līnen (as an adjective in the sense ‘made of flax’); related to Dutch linnen, German Leinen, also to obsolete line ‘flax.’