My grandmother was a big fan of linen. During the hot summer months in Northeastern China, she would take me to outdoor markets to scour for linen shirts and pants. “Linen is the best in the heat because it billows in the wind,” she’d say. “It breathes!”
A linen shirt would cost more than a synthetic or even a cotton shirt, but she insisted it was worth it. I soon associated linen with fine and luxurious materials such as silk and wool. When I came to the United States, it was even harder to find linen, because it is not produced in any quantity domestically and must be imported. Although select brands like Eileen Fisher have always offered some linen items, one still needed to comb through various stores and online catalogs to find more.
A few years ago, linen began making appearances on the runway. We saw Paul Smith’s linen tops, Victoria Beckham’s linen wrap dresses, and Theory’s linen trenches. This year, many more labels incorporated the durable and cooling fabric into their look books.
The Ultimate Summer Fabric (that can also be worn all year round)
It’s not difficult to see why linen is making a comeback, especially as our summers get hotter.
“Not only does it feel good against the skin, but it dries quickly,” said Heidi Sherman, linen expert, archeologist, and professor at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. “It’s also considered to be very healthy because like silk, it breathes. You can wear it when it’s hot.”
There are more benefits to wearing linen than just keeping cool. It’s extremely durable and long lasting.
“Once you wash it, if you then press it, it looks like new again. Whereas that doesn’t happen with a lot of cotton [garments]—you can tell if you’ve had it for years. But with linen, you really can’t if you take good care of it.”
In the winter, linen can also be worn under other layers to keep warm.
“The thing that is really nice about linen, even homespun, coarser linens, is that the more you wash it, the nicer it becomes,” said Sherman. “It becomes softer with multiple washings. You could have a homespun linen shirt for years, it’s really not going to decay unless it lays wet … If you keep it dry, it’s going to last hundreds of years.”
One of the Oldest Fabrics in the World
While linen is widely appreciated for its cooling qualities, it wasn’t always considered to be a rare and fashionable fabric.
Linen is made out of flax and is one of the oldest textiles in the world. There are records of the ancient Egyptians using flax to create linen more than 4,000 years ago. All Egyptians wore linen clothing, from peasants to pharaohs. The Egyptians were able to spin linen as fine as a spider’s web, according to “The Yarn Book,” by Penny Walsh.
In Europe, linen was a widely available fabric worn by peasants in medieval times. Any clothing designed to touch the skin, such as undergarments, were made out of linen or hemp, because animal fibers such as wool were too scratchy. Only the very wealthy had clothing made out of silk. Linen was appreciated for its practicality and was not associated with the ideas of rarity or nobility.
“Linen was incredibly important in the ancient and medieval world,” said Sherman, who specializes in the Vikings, medieval Europe, and Russia. She also studies how medieval people grew and processed flax into linen. “They used it for everything. It’s great not only for underclothing, but also for table linens, sheets, and anything used for ships, like netting and sail cloth … The original documents don’t even often talk about anything made out of flax or hemp because it was prosaic. It was everywhere.”
The reason that it could be used for sailing materials is because linen is one of the rare textiles that is stronger when it’s wet.
“Linen is really the work horse of the textile family,” said Sherman.
Despite its widespread availability, linen is very difficult to make.
“It is very difficult to process linen, even industrially, because there’s lots and lots of stages to the production process,” said Sherman, who has experience growing flax and processing it into linen by hand.
A healthy flax plant will grow up to 3–4 feet and there are hundreds of fiber bundles inside one stalk of flax. After the flax stalks are harvested, they must be left to dry. Then, the stalks must be rotted in still water over a couple of weeks. Today, this can be done industrially. The rotted flax must then be dried again.
Now, the outer bark can be removed from the fiber bundle. This is done through a violent process in which one takes a handful of flax bundles and beats them with a wooden knife.
There are two stages of beating. The fibers, which are still tangled and have pieces of bark left in them, are then hackled. This is a process in which the fibers are drawn through a bed of nails to make them straight and clean. Once this is all done, the flax can finally be spun into thread.
When done manually, the process takes months. This same process is still used today for hand-crafted linen.
In medieval times, the seeds were sowed in May, and it takes three months for the flax to mature. Then it is harvest time in early August and the processing begins. Peasants would spend the winter hand spinning the thread, which is also laborious.
“You would get the whole village to do it. It was part of your agricultural cycle,” said Sherman.
Back then everyone grew flax in northern Europe and had knowledge of how to process it into linen. Before the 20th century, there were places in the United States that grew flax, namely in Pennsylvania. During the Civil War, cotton from the South became unavailable, and the linen industry boomed in the North. When the Civil War ended, cotton came back and synthetic fabrics were introduced. Flax production went into decline.