Know Your Linen

close-up of linen fibers

Before I started my research, I didn’t know that linen is made from the flax plant. We’re talking the same flax that provides the seeds that provide all those good Omega-3 acids. Here is some etymological goodness from Wikipedia:

The word linen is derived from the Latin for the flax plant, which is linum, and the earlier Greek linon. This word history has given rise to a number of other terms:

line: derived from the use of a linen thread to 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 flax seed
linoleum: a floor covering made from linseed oil and other materials

In addition, the term in English, flaxen-haired, denoting a very light, bright blonde, comes from a comparison to the color of raw flax fiber.

Hooray for multipurpose plants!

Linen is naturally creamy white to light tan in color, pure white is only achieved through bleaching. It is notorious for wrinkling, but linen lovers just accept that as part of its charm. It is a great hot-weather fabric because it absorbs a lot of moisture (e.g. sweat) without feeling damp and dries quickly, which cools the skin.

Linen is many times stronger than cotton, and is actually stronger wet than it is dry. Slubby texture is a sign of lower-quality linen; the good stuff is very smooth. The fabric doesn’t create lint, it is naturally dirt-resistant, and it takes dye well. It is nonallergenic and antistatic. Though it is crisper and less drapey than cotton, it gets softer over time with washing — and it is machine washable! The long flax fibers are relatively inelastic, which causes the wrinkling. Repeated creasing actually breaks the fibers, causing perma-wrinkles.

flax botanical illustration from Wikimedia Commons

It is a naturally eco-friendly fabric, as flax requires less water and fewer pesticides than cotton. And, being a natural fiber, linen fibers are recyclable and biodegrade.

Linen fabric is usually labeled handkerchief weight, medium weight, or heavyweight/bottomweight. (Fabric weight is unstandardized and a bit confusing, read here for more info.)

* Handkerchief weight: 3-4 oz.
* Medium (shirt) weight: 4.5-6.5 oz.
* Heavy or “bottomweight”: 7-8 oz.

Sources:
Wikipedia: Linen
Fabrics.net
Denver Fabrics
Class Act Fabrics
Silk Road Fabrics

Next: sewing with linen, and sources for linen.

Thanks to Tamar for suggesting this topic!

14 Comments

  1. Tamar says:

    Okay, this is why they invented the word “serendipitous”: today just happens to be my birthday! Thanks for the great post, Kim! I can’t wait for more linen.

  2. méri says:

    I HAVE To comment this entry!!!
    I love worh with all kind of linen; thick or fine linen to embroider, to make bags, purses and… and almost everything!
    I use Portuguese linen.
    Take a look here in google images
    http://images.google.pt/images?hl=pt-PT&q=roca+de+fiar&btnG=Procurar+imagens&gbv=2

    and also take a look in my little blog :)

  3. méri says:

    I mean “I love worK” of course!

  4. Julia says:

    WOW I knew nothing about linen! How great. I’m very excited about your next post!

  5. Sarah says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post. I also love linen and am anxious to know good online sources to buy it. We live in rural NY and it’s hard to find. Maybe I should grow some flax to harvest. And maybe you’ll want to do a post on silk, too?

    Thank you for this blog/site. It is one of my absolute favorites. I appreciate all the work you do to research sales, topics, trends; I love the swatch selections; and it’s nice to see someone else who is as addicted to fabric!

  6. Linen is my favorite fiber, I think. I appreciate its simple goodness.

  7. Irene Heikes says:

    I used to sew my own clothes and my favorite dress was made with a linen print.

    I really love True Up. You’ve done all the fabriholics on the net a great favor. Keep up the good work.

    Also, another good site to buy linen from is fabrics-store.com.
    They have many different weights of linen, white linen, and beautiful colors, too.

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  11. Sandra says:

    Interesting post; did you know flax spinners, decades ago, would have short lived lives due to COPD caused by spinning flax? Much like sewing machine factory workers of recent years…my mother’s sister recently passed away from lung damage during the years she worked in a sewing factory in central VA.
    Flax has fibers that split away from the main stem and float about in the air; as well, spinners must constantly wet the flat to make it easier to spin. Days gone by spinners would wet their fingers then wet the flax, all the while ingesting the minute fibers.
    A short lived life with a painful death.
    I’ve really enjoyed visiting your site; very interesting and full of useful information!

  12. giardino says:

    Very interesting post. I love linen too, and I love history – the word derivations are fascinating.

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