Reference Library: Linen
'Linen' is a material made from the fibers of the flax plant.
The term "linen" refers to fabric made from flax fibers, however today it is often used to describe bed and bath textiles because traditionally linen was widely used for towels, sheets, etc. '(1)' As used today the word "linen" is descriptive of a class of woven textiles used in homes as towels, sheets, and tablecloths. In the past, the word also referred to lightweight undergarments such as shirts, chemises, waistshirts, lingerie, and detachable shirt collars and cuffs. Modern linens are typically manufactured of natural fibers like cotton, silk, modal, and (sometimes) flax, as well as synthetic fibers including polyester, rayon, etc. Historically, linens were manufactured almost exclusively of fibers from the flax plant ("linum usitatisimum") but also hemp, cotton and/or a blend of these fibers.
Flax is one of the bast fibers which come from the stem of the plant near the outer edge. It is one of the oldest textile fibers dating back more than 3000 years. Today flax is a prestigious, expensive fiber and only produced in small quantities. It has a long "staple" (individual fiber length) relative to cotton and other natural fibers. '(1)'
Description of Flax Fibers
Flax fibers vary in length from about 2” to 36”and average 12-16 micrometers in diameter. Flax comes in two varieties: shorter tow fibers used for coarser fabrics and longer line fibers used for finer fabrics. Flax fibers can be identified by their typical “nodes” which add to the flexibility and texture of the fabric. The cross-section of the fiber is made up of irregular polygonal shapes which contribute to the coarse texture of the fabric. '(2)'
Properties of Flax
Linen fabrics have a high natural luster and their natural color ranges between shades of ivory, tan, or grey. Pure white linen is created by heavy bleaching which is not good for the fabric. Linen typically has a thick and thin character with a crisp and textured feel to it, but can range from stiff and rough to soft and smooth. It is a cool fabric that absorbs moisture making it ideal for towels as well as apparel in hot climates. It is a very durable, strong fabric and one of the only ones that are stronger wet than dry. It won’t stretch and can resist damage from abrasion well. However, because it has very low elasticity it can break if it is folded at the same place repeatedly. Mildew, perspiration, and bleach can also damage the fabric, but it is resistant to moths and carpet beetles. Linen is relatively easy to take care of since it resists dirt and stains, has no lint or pilling tendencies and can be dry cleaned, machine washed or steamed. It can withstand high temperatures and only has some moderate initial shrinkage. '(2)'
A characteristic often associated with linen yarn is the presence of "slubs", or small knots that occur randomly along its length. However, these are actually defects associated with low quality. The finest linen has a very consistent diameter with no slubs. '(3)'
The standard measure of bulk linen yarn is the 'lea'. This is a specific length, or indirect grist system, i.e. the number of length units per unit mass. A yarn having a size of 1 lea will give 300 yards per pound. The fine yarns used in handkerchiefs, etc. might be 40 lea, and give 40x300 = 12,000 yards per pound. The symbol is NeL. '(3)'
More commonly used in continental Europe is the Metric system, Nm. This is the number of 1,000 m lengths per kilogram.
In China they often tend to use the English Cotton system, NeC. This is the number of 840 yard lengths in a pound.
The quality of the finished linen product is often dependant upon growing conditions and harvesting techniques. To generate the longest possible fibers, flax is either hand-harvested by pulling up the entire plant or stalks are cut very close to the root. After harvesting, the seeds are removed through a mechanized process called “rippling.”
The fibers must then be loosened from the stalk. This is achieved through “retting” which uses bacteria to decompose the pectin that binds the fibers together. There are natural retting methods that occur in tanks and pools or directly in the fields. There are also chemical retting methods which are faster but are typically more harmful to the environment and to the fibers themselves.
At this point, the stalks are ready for “scutching” which takes place between August and December. Scutching removes the woody portion of the stalk by crushing them between two metal rollers so that the parts of the stalk can be separated. The fibers are removed and the other parts such as linseed, shive, and tow are set aside for other uses. The short fibers are separated by “hackling” or combing them away, to leave behind only the long, soft flax fibers.
An alternate production method is known as “cottonizing” which is quicker and requires less equipment. The flax stalks are processed using traditional cotton machinery; however, the finished fibers often lose the characteristic linen look.
After the fibers have been separated and processed, they are typically spun into yarns and woven or knit into linen textiles. These textiles can then be bleached, dyed, printed on, or finished with a number of treatments or coatings. '(2), (4)'
Flax is primarily grown in Western Europe and Russia, with Ireland and Belgium as the main manufacturers and exporters. '(2)' Linen fabrics are also produced in many other parts of the World.
Linen has a variety of uses ranging from bed and bath fabrics (table cloths, dish towels, bed sheets, etc.), home and commercial furnishing items (wallpaper/ wall coverings, upholstery, window treatments, etc.), apparel items (suits, dresses, skirts, shirts, etc.) , to industrial products (luggage, canvases, sewing threat, etc.). '(1)'
Currently researchers are working on a cotton/flax blend to create new yarns which will improve the feel of denim during hot and humid weather. '(5)'
In the past linen was also used for books (the only surviving example of which is the Liber Linteus). Due to its strength, in the Middle Ages linen was used for shields and gambeson. Also because of its strength when wet, Irish linen is the best wrap of pool/billiard cues, due to its absorption of sweat from hands. Paper made of linen can be very strong and crisp, which is why the United States and many other countries print their currency on paper that is made from 25% Linen and 75% Cotton. '(3)'
Contrary to popular belief, linen was probably never used as material for the Hoplite cuirass because of its price. Hoplite cuirass was made of leather.
Sources for more Information
'(1)' Textiles, Ninth Edition by Sara J. Kadolph and Anna L. Langford. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall
'(2)' Classifications & Analysis of Textiles: A Handbook by Karen L. LaBat, Ph.D. and Carol J. Salusso, Ph.D. University of Minnesota, 2003
'(5)' “Flax Fiber Offers Cotton Cool Comfort”, Agricultural Research magazine November 2005 issue
The word linen is derived from the Latin for the flax plant, which is linum, and the earlier Greek linon. This word history has given rise to a number of other terms:
*line, derived from the use of a linen thread to determine a straight line; other uses such as ocean liner derive ultimately from this use
*lining, due to the fact that linen was often used to create a lining for wool and leather clothing
*lingerie, via French, originally denotes underwear made of linen
*Linnet, a European finch that eats flax seed
*linseed oil, an oil derived from flax seed
*linoleum, a floor covering made from linseed oil and other materials
The word lintel, a supporting member above a door or window, is not related.
In addition, the term in English, flaxen-haired, denoting a very light, bright blonde, comes from a comparison to the color of raw flax fiber.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Linen".