Everyone who knows me knows that I almost exclusively knit and sew with natural materials such as linen, wool, cotton, and silk. I do this partly because these materials are by far the most comfortable to wear, and partly because they tend to be the most environmentally friendly option. For a long time, natural fibers were the only option available for textile production, whether it was for clothing/home textiles or for things like ropes, insulation, and sails. Carl von Linne called linen “Linum Usitatissimum,” which roughly translates to “the very useful.” From the 1800s and onwards, synthetic textiles began to be developed, but so far no one has been able to show me a fabric or yarn made from synthetic materials that is as beautiful and comfortable to wear as the natural alternatives.
Properties of Linen
Linen has so many properties that inspire and make me happy. The shine in a high-quality linen yarn is special and linen garments’ ability to feel cool in hot weather is another reason why I love wearing them. A plain woven linen fabric, such as the classic shirt linen, is easy to work with and get neat when sewing; threads can be pulled out to obtain straight, neat edges, and the direction of the thread (hello former students!) is easy to see. Here is a short list of more characteristics, both positive and some that require some consideration when it comes to handling linen.
The ability of linen to absorb moisture
Linen fiber is quite porous, making it easy to quickly absorb and release water. This means it works well in clothes that are closest to the body, one of the reasons why underwear was traditionally made of linen rather than wool.
Linen absorbs moisture from the body but dries quickly, so you feel fresh and dry even when it’s hot and humid outside. I almost exclusively wear linen clothes during heatwaves, and preferably long-sleeved, as it helps a lot when, like me, you have trouble coping with high heat and humidity.
Linen also has a protective effect against UV radiation, although this of course depends on the thickness of the fabric.
Strength and Durability
Flax is one of the fibers with the highest tensile strength (meaning it resists force when pulled or under load) and it has therefore traditionally been used for ropes and other items that need to be strong, such as sails and tarps. However, it is not very stretchy and wrinkles easily, which for those who want to look “pressed” can be a disadvantage. Personally, I see the small wrinkles that occur when I wear linen garments as “laughter lines”.
Microorganisms and Chemicals
Flax can be attacked by mold if it is left damp and warm, so it is necessary to store it in a dry place. It is also not particularly resistant to chemicals, so avoid bleach and optical brighteners in the wash. A washing temperature of 60°C is optimal; higher than that may cause the flax fibers to “matt” due to the plant glue that separates them starting to dissolve.
The many uses of flax
Flax is not only used for thread for weaving and sewing. Both the plant and seed give off oil. Linseed oil from the plant is used for linseed oil paints or to oil floors, etc.
Flaxseed oil, on the other hand, contains Omega3, which we humans need to feel good. Most people can convert the plant’s Omega3 into a form that is suitable for our bodies, so flaxseed oil can be used as a complementary source of Omega3 in most cases. (However, there are a few people, about 15%, whose bodies cannot handle the conversion. For these people, flaxseed oil is of no use as a source of Omega3.)
Flaxseed is used for bread, and people with stomach problems often put a tablespoon of flaxseed in a glass of cold water at night. Overnight, a “gel” forms around the seeds, which helps the intestines function better.
My grandfather, who lived with us when I was growing up, had a glass of flaxseed in water on the kitchen counter every night to drink the next morning.
In the past, flax was also used in floor mats, so-called linoleum mats, and it can be used for artist canvases (see example here).
In addition to the above, flax can be used for papermaking, wallpaper, sacks, fishing nets, sealing material for plumbing, and much more.
There are two primary types of flax that are commercially grown: fiber flax and oilseed flax. Fiber flax is commonly cultivated for its fiber (called “tow”) which is utilized in producing textiles, yarns, and ropes. The seeds are also used for cooking and making linseed oil. The ideal climate for growing high-quality fiber flax requires consistent humidity and regular rainfall.
Fiber flax is harvested by pulling it up by the roots to preserve fiber length. Climate change may impact the future of fiber flax as it may eventually become impossible to grow.
Oilseed flax, on the other hand, is shorter, more branched, and is mostly used for producing oil. It can withstand warmer climates and is grown in countries, including the USA, Argentina, and India.
In short, linen is an amazing plant! There is nothing that can beat a freshly pressed linen tablecloth for a party or a well-sewn linen dress for everyday or special occasions during the summer. Knitting with linen yarn or sewing clothes with linen fabric makes me happy and provides me with sustainable garments for both myself and the planet.