Wednesday, February 24, 2010


In the morning I try to take my dog on as long a walk as I can. This morning was lovely and cool and we set out just after 6am. These walks aren't nearly as interesting as the ones I used to do from my little farm, but I do enjoy looking at people's houses and thinking about things. Today I wondered as I walked about what linen is made of. It struck me that I didn't know, although now I've done a bit of research, it seems really obvious and familiar, so perhaps I did know...

Anyway, I thought I'd share some interesting linen facts because, well, I found them interesting. And it doesn't surprise me that linen is one of the oldest fabrics - of course I'm going to love the old stuff!

The parts of a flax plant

First of all, linen is made of flax. It is a fairly labour intensive process to get it from plant to cloth with quite a few steps, but interestingly, some of the steps, such as retting, can happen naturally on the plant. Oh, and there are some cool words involved here too. So, first there is winnowing, which is removing the seeds. This is done after harvest, which is best done by hand to make sure long, intact stalks are harvested. Next is retting, the first part of the process to remove the fibre from the stalks. This is usually done in water. The next part of the process is scutching, which can be done by machine or by hand. Basically, the fibres that you want to make the cloth are inside the stalk and it takes quite a bit of work to get them out. There is a cool video that demonstrates some of the process when done by hand here. After quite a bit of scutching, heckling needs to happen. This is done with combs and is to make the flax straight and smooth and ready for spinning.

The Spinner, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

Of course spinning is a very well known process and can be done by hand or by machine. The thread is then ready to be woven into cloth or fabric and, well, the rest we know.

Linen has been found intact in tombs in Egypt, thousands of years old. I can completely believe this because when I went there the original colours on the walls of the tombs were so stunningly perfect it blew me away. It is one of the oldest forms of textile, along with wool I suppose. I like this fact a lot.

A linen mummy shroud (with the mummy inside it) Egypt, about 1000 BC (Vatican Museum, Rome)

There is a whole other post here on the environmental impact of the production of linen and other textiles. While it seems that cotton is the worst, linen isn't really that far behind. If you're interested in this have a read of this article, which is a good intro to the issues.

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