What Is Linen?
Linen is a natural fiber made from the stalks of the flax plant Linum usitatissimum. There is evidence to suggest that a linen manufacturing industry was in operation in Egypt over 4,000 years ago. Knowledge of the processes involved in making linen was eventually carried into southern Europe via the Phoenicians, but it was Belfast in Northern Ireland that became the linen hub of the world, producing almost all of the fabric during the Victorian era.
Bed linen was coveted by the upper classes for its cool and soft feeling against the skin, becoming a mark of wealth and social standing. These days, textiles account for the majority of linen grown, with clothing forming only a very small percentage – which makes a well-sourced and cared for linen shirt all the more special an addition to your wardrobe.
Why Is Linen So Costly?
Much like cashmere, the price of linen is elevated due to the laborious processes involved in its manufacture. Add to that the fact that weather conditions can also affect the quality of harvests, and you have another factor which can bump this fabric’s price up further.
The best and longest fibres tend to be from flax that is hand-harvested, after which the seeds are removed. Bacteria are then introduced to the stalks to decompose the pectin that clumps up the fibres. This process, called ‘retting’, can take quite some time if done organically.
Then comes the ‘scutching’ process, which usually occurs between August and December. One scutching method involves two metal rollers crushing the stalks, thereby removing the unwanted woody parts. The remaining fibres are then ‘heckled’, which has nothing to do with shouting obscenities, but rather involves the combing away of short fibres, leaving only the longest and softest fibres for production.
The long fibres are slightly twisted and then processed using a ‘wet spinning’ technique in order to achieve a smoother and softer yarn. Some manufacturers have ‘cottonised’ production, using machinery to speed up the process, but this is known to yield a lower quality fibre.