Flax is cultivated to produce both flax seeds and a fibrous stalk that can be broken down, spun into yarn and woven into a cloth we know as linen. Linen is an ancient textile that has embedded itself into our culture, as even the term ‘linens’ implies a type of woven bed, bath and kitchen textile, because these items were traditionally made out of flax fiber.
Today, a revamped and eco-friendly linen has become a relatively costly textile that has been showcased on runways by the likes of Celine, Lanvin, Stella McCartney and even Uniqlo collections. But why has the fashion world frenzied over this relatively humble fiber? The Fiber Watch series investigates the story behind this natural fabric to find out why and learn how sustainable it is.
The first evidence of woven linen dates back to at least 8,000 BC, as researchers have found fragments of the flax plant and various fabrics woven from it in early Swiss lakeside dwellings. Long before its fashion debut, linen was the mummification cloth of choice for the ancient Egyptians, and has since become a staple household and garment textile that has been used by both Western and Eastern civilizations.
Linen is a naturally eco-friendly and toxin-free material that is cool to the touch, softens through wash and wear, and proves to be extremely durable. This bast fiber, which belongs to the same group as hemp, jute and ramie, is made from the long fibers inside the stalk of the plant. It requires no pesticides for cultivation in its native Central Europe, and the basic production of linen fabric doesn’t require chemicals.
The longest flax fibers are often up to 3 feet long, making flax superior to cotton in length and durability. However, linen is often shunned in fashion circles because of how easily it wrinkles and loses shape. Lucky for today’s designers, modern day fabric manufacturers have developed a whole new range of linen fabrics that are woven into jerseys, blended with Spandex or left raw for a vintage look, offering up linen that is less wrinkly, less transparent and much more versatile than several types of cotton and wool blends. Researchers are also finding ways to apply linen fibers as substitutes for carbon fibers in skis, tennis rackets and even violins.
Currently, about two-thirds of the roots of the flax plant are based in a narrow belt of farmland that weaves its way from northern France to the Netherlands. Around 200,000 acres of flax fields are scattered among the sugar-beet and feed corn crops that inhabit this region. Summertime flax fields are seas of small blue flowers that turn into rattling seed heads (full of flax seed) when ready to harvest in the fall. After harvest, the flax plants are left to lay in the field for a process called “retting” whereby alternate days of sun and rain cause the outer fibers to decay, making the long inner fibers accessible. These are then processed in either China (where 80% of linen is manufactured) or through a local farmers’ cooperative in Normandy, which produces the bulk of raw linen yarn sent to high-end Italian weavers.
So what’s the draw towards this fiber for high fashion? Other than the qualities of modern linen as described above, fine linen is a rather specialty material. Flax is a high-maintenance plant, making its production limited. The French and Dutch regions where the plant is cultivated are specifically ideal for flax, and the processing of the fiber has been refined into a passion for the farmers and fibre artisans of the region. Not only does the exclusivity of the fiber make it attractive, but the increasing importance of transparency and ethical production practices make it a responsible choice.
The supply chain of linen is clearly evident when obtained from France and the Netherlands, especially if it has stayed within a 100-mile radius from seed to finished fabric. The pride that the area’s linen farmers and fiber workers display is evident in each gorgeous creation that struts its way down the runway.
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