A biref history of linen and how it is grown and transformed from seed to fabric.

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Although relatively unknown to younger generations, flax fiber is present everywhere, and is sought after by connoisseurs as a material with no equivalent. Flax is an annual plant in the Linaceae family. The flowers have 5 petals, and are generally blue. The fruit is a capsule containing linseed, prized for its high alpha-linoleic acid content. The fiber lies immediately beneath the stem bark and is extracted using natural and mechanical processes.

By Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (List of Koehler Images) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Linen's suppleness is revealed by its handling, while its sturdiness allows it to stand the test of time. In the next few paragraphs, I'll take you on a journey through the history of this textile, to discover its origins and unique properties.

The origins of linen

Linen fiber is the first and oldest plant fiber to be woven. The discovery of linen fibers in a cave in Georgia, dating back 36,000 years, tells us that our ancestors were already using the plant to create fabrics at that time. In Ancient Egypt, linen was not only used for clothing, but also to wrap the bodies of the deceased, during the process known as mummification. When the tomb of Tutankhamen, who died in 1323 BC, was opened, linen curtains were discovered intact! A symbol of purity, linen was particularly prized by the priests of ancient Rome. During this period, techniques were also developed to weave a fabric strong enough to be used for the sails of the Roman navy.

In the Middle Ages, linen became an important and valuable trade item. It was also during this period that the cultivation and processing of linen flourished.

In 1801, French weaver Joseph-Marie Jacquard invented a mechanism for automatically lifting of loom threads, which could be programmed using punched cards. This invention is sometimes considered the ancestor of the computer!

During the Industrial Revolution, flax-growing areas declined sharply, as the work was difficult and laborious. The intensive use of cotton, the arrival of synthetic textiles and rising labor costs led to the gradual decline of the linen industry.

Today, 80% of the world's production of dyed linen fiber comes from Europe. Flax accounts for less than 1% of textile fibers consumed worldwide.

In Canada, flax is mainly grown for linseed, with varieties that differ from those used for textile fiber. Will the current trend towards a return to natural fibers create sufficient demand to increase the cultivation of fibre flax? Only time will tell!

Flax processing stages

From soil to fabric

Sown in spring, the flax seed takes 100 days to reach a height of around 1 meter. Flowering offers a magnificent landscape: bluish fields move in the wind in the weeks leading up to harvest.

Unlike flaxseed varieties, which are harvested using cereal harvesters, fibre flax is plucked using specialized machinery to preserve the full length of the fibres.

The flax is left on the ground for the retting phase, the first natural stage in the plant's transformation into fiber. Alternating sun and rain encourage the action of microorganisms present in the soil and progressively contribute to the elimination of pectose, a kind of glue that binds the textile fibers to the woody part of the plant. In the image below, taken from Wikipedia, the fiber is located between the bark and the center of the stem, and is represented by the letters BF (for bast fibres).

By derivative work: Curtis Clark (talk) Labeledstemforposter_copy.jpg: Ryan R. McKenzie (Labeledstemforposter_copy.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Next comes scutching, a mechanical process that extracts the fibers contained in the stem's outer envelope and removes them from the wood.

Combing is the first spinning operation, where the fiber is parallelized, calibrated and stretched into ribbons ready for spinning.

Spinning comprises a number of operations that transform the fibers into yarn, which is then sent to weaving mills, depending on its length.

Finishing is the final stage of fabric treatment, involving processes designed to give flax the properties sought by consumers. These include bleaching, dyeing, printing and finishing.

Characteristics of linen fiber

Natural well-being

Flax fiber is highly water-absorbent. The pectins found in flax fiber are hydrophilic, absorbing or releasing water according to climatic conditions. This is why linen is described as a "living", thermoregulating fabric. Even when damp, linen doesn't feel damp to the touch. This property also explains why it dries very quickly, making it an ideal fabric for the bathroom, where bacteria like to proliferate in humidity.

In contact with the skin, linen provides a sensation of freshness and wicks away perspiration. Hypoallergenic and antibacterial, linen is particularly coveted by those suffering from skin ailments.

In addition, linen is now increasingly used in the manufacture of high-performance composites: sports equipment (helmets, tennis rackets, skis, surfboards), the automotive industry, eco-construction, etc.

The advantages of flax

A responsible crop

Flax is a rotational crop, meaning it can be grown in the same field every 6 or 7 years, maintaining optimum soil quality and improving the profitability of subsequent crops.

Flax cultivation requires no irrigation (rainwater is sufficient), and very few inputs (fertilizers and pesticides). The preservation of ecosystems depends on this type of environmentally-friendly crop. In fact, it's one of the main reasons we've chosen to work exclusively with flax!


Alliance for European Flax-linen and Hemp


Background image:

Emile Claus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

culture découverte écoresponsable environnement fibre histoire linen nouvelles origine tissu

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