The benefits of linen, a beautiful sustainable textile

Linen is one of my absolute favourite sustainable textiles. It has been around for a very long time, and with good reason. Here is a little history of the textile, with a run down of it’s benefits.

Linen is a the textile woven from the flax crop, which is endemic to Europe and Central Asia. It is a beautiful natural fibre that has been used for clothing for many thousands of years.  There are archaeological remains of linen from 8000BC from the Swiss lake area. Linen was also used in ancient Egypt as a currency. It has been historically popular in Europe, where it was used to linen was used to make men’s summer suits, and in Japan where it is used for indigo dyed smocks and kimonos. With such as long history you would expect linen to be a very sustainable option, and this is largely the case.

Linen is both cool in warm weather and warm in cool weather. . The fabric is long-lasting and softens beautifully with age. It is completely natural, doesn’t require chemicals to be processed into textile, and is completely biodegradable. It is also long-lasting and takes well to mending, as the rich Japanese mending tradition of boro can attest to.

Japanese-inspired washcloth, hand-knitted with European linen

Japanese-inspired washcloth, hand-knitted with European linen

Find my DIY tutorial here. Cloth pictured with Sibella Court’s gorgeous styling book Nomad

In the right conditions, linen can be cultivated without fertilizers and grown on marginal land that is unsuitable for food crop production. It is a very productive crop, yielding a far greater amount of fiber than cotton cropping. However, conventional linen is grown with chemical herbicides and fertilizers, which reduces some of the environmental benefits of the textile. Linen cultivated in areas that have had a long history with this fiber are less likely to use these chemicals. You can also find organic linen which guarantees that these chemicals have not been used.

Conventional linen is processed into fiber from the raw flax crop through a process of water-retting. This involves soaking the flax crop in rivers or waterways, and results in a high amount of pollutants making their way into the waterways. These include residual agro-chemicals, as well as natural waste. Excess plant matter in the waterways upsets the eco-system and leads to an imbalance. There are more eco-friendly method of processing. These are dew-retting and enzyme-retting.  These processes turn the raw avoid the water pollution associated with the water-retting process.

I recommend looking for organic linen, or seeking out dew-retted linen. Generally, line that is produced in Europe has a much lower ecological footprint and is higher quality. While line produced in China is of lower quality and involves the use of argo-chemicals and water processing. However, with the benefits of this fabric, conventional linen is a more sustainable choice when compared to conventional cotton, viscose or synthetic fabrics. As we move to a more sustainable economy I am sure we will see this fabric featured a lot more often. Linen is a fiber that has been entwined with human history for a very long time, and I am sure we will continue to rely on it for many more years to come.

Zady LinenSweater_detail

Beautiful linen sweater by Zady, a sustainable fashion brand that makes good use of linen.

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Photo By: Zady linen sweater