When I was a teenager I remember being warned against linen fabric: “It’ll crease terribly,” doomsayers were fond of declaring. Linen suffered from a bad reputation in the fashion world, but it had a renaissance in the 1990s, when about 70% of linen production contributed to textile apparel. This was a huge leap from the 1970s when only 5% was used by the garment industry.
Linen, a fibre made from the flax plant, has been used for millennia. The ancient Egyptians wrapped their mummies with it; in the days of Homer warriors used linen to make a type of body armour called a ‘linothorax’, while in the Middle Ages it was used for shields, bowstrings and gambeson (a type of jacket worn as armour). From pool cues and bread couches (a kind of mould to hold dough), to canvases and dollar bills, linen has many and varied uses.
Garments made from linen are expensive however, and this is due to the labour-intensive manufacturing process. The crops must be nursed along, being more difficult to grow, and more expensive to produce than cotton. Flax thread is difficult to weave without breaking threads because it is non-elastic. Those random slubs, or knots visible in some fabrics are actually flaws, associated with low quality – fine linen fibres will be very consistent. The rewards of perseverance are there: fabric is cool and smooth to the touch, lint-free and unlikely to pill, and it softens the more often it is washed.
As for the dreaded wrinkling: this is due to linen’s poor elasticity – it does not spring back readily and formal garments must be ironed often. Happily it is a hardy fabric, and is the only one that is actually stronger when it is wet, although constant creasing or folding in the same places will weaken those threads. Interestingly linen fabric can absorb and lose water rapidly, and can gain up to 20% moisture without feeling damp, which is why it is perfect for hot weather. It was the Egyptians’ favourite fabric, and they wore only white in the desert heat.
Although I overcame that early fear instilled by some nameless adult, today I particularly love linen knit fabrics: the somewhat loose (almost holey) weave makes up such light, airy garments. I own two tees by Zara made from flax linen (the term ‘linen’ can also be applied to garments made from other fibres such as cotton or hemp when the textile features a linen-style weave) and they have held up beautifully over two summers and are so comfortable to wear. In a hot climate, you just can’t do better than to dress like an Egyptian.
Click on any of the images and jump through to learn much more about the history of flax and the manufacturing processes of linen.