An age-old material made from the fibers of the flax plant, linen is a renewable resource regarded for its soft touch, smooth texture, strength, and durability. As one of the oldest textiles developed, linen can be traced back to ancient Egypt when it was often used as currency and a symbol of wealth. Cultivated across the globe for thousands of years, linen fibers are durable, lightweight, and breathable. Linen continues to be a modern staple in the world of textiles, with a comprehensive catalogue of contemporary design uses that includes furniture upholstery, wallcoverings, window treatments, rugs, and more. The information that follows features a brief exploration of linen’s origins, composition, and characteristics.
Overview and Origins
Prized for its ability to remain cool in warm weather, carbon-dating has attested that linen was frequently used in Egypt dating back to 8,000 BC and was used for clothing, currency, furnishings, decorations, and most famously as the burial garment for mummies. Prized for its ability to remain cool in warm weather, ancient Egyptian linen—which was coarse compared to modern linen—continued to be an essential fabric in the Western world for many centuries to come—spanning all seasons and climates.
A linen thread was originally used to determine a straight line, which resulted in the English word line. During the Middle Ages, the term linens became synonymous with an array of household fabrics—such as bedding, napkins, tablecloths, and towels—and the expression endures to this day, despite the fact that these items are made from a range of materials. Linen also holds a time-honored history of use as canvas material for fine oil paintings. While the invention of cotton gin in the late 1700s made cotton production a cost efficient alternative, linen has remained a popular standard in today’s designs.
Composition and Characteristics
A sustainable and natural material, linen is made from the fibers of the flax plant and is one of the oldest fibers to be cultivated and woven into fabric. The process of extracting the fibers involves cutting or pulling flax plants from the ground and then removing the seeds through a process called winnowing. This is followed by a practice referred to as retting, which works to remove the plant stock from the fibers. The fibers are then separated, and the longest pieces are collected before being spun into yarn and eventually woven into fabric.
With natural heat and moisture-wicking properties, linen is long-lasting, absorbent, breathable, and naturally antibacterial. Concurrently cool to touch and a good conductor of warmth, linen’s natural fibers hold dye colors well and are very strong. Celebrated for its natural nuances and variabilities, linen’s inherent features include slubs, texture, and weave irregularities that are esteemed for adding a unique aesthetic that is not achievable in man-made fibers.