What Is Linen Made Of And How Easy Is It To Work With?

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What is flax linen fabric? Many people think of linen as a luxury material. It’s strong, attractive, comfortable…and expensive. But before cotton became king, linen was the go-to fabric for clothing, housewares, and more. What is linen made of, anyway? What do people use it for today? And how do you sew linen fabric? We’re going to tell you.

What is Linen Made Of?

Some types of fabric, like microfiber, can be made using a variety of different fibers. Linen, however, is made exclusively from plant fiber. What plant is linen made from, then? Linen comes from the flax plant.

flax field
Flax field in harvest

In fact, the fabric takes its name from the latin word linum (and the Greek word, linon), which means flax. Interestingly, the word line also comes from linum, as the ancients often used a taut flax thread to measure a straight line.

Archaeologists have found evidence of linen fabric dating back 30,000 years and spanning many different parts of the world. Cultures in ancient Mesopotamia, Georgia, Egypt and Greece all made linen fabric. The manufacture and processing of linen was also an important part of the economy in medieval Europe. [1]

Linen is a woven fabric. What weave is linen? The linen weave, of course. Linen weave is a type of plain weave.

thread crossing pattern plain weave fabric

What is the Difference Between Cotton and Linen?

Confused? It’s understandable. Cotton and linen are similar fabrics used for similar purposes. They’re both natural fibers. Also, cotton, like linen, is widely used in clothing and household items. But there are quite a few differences, too.

Here are a few:

  • Linen is made from flax fibers, while cotton is made from cotton fibers.
  • Cotton is less expensive than linen.
  • Linen fabric is more textured than cotton fabric.
  • Cotton holds dye better than linen.
  • Linen is more durable than cotton.
  • Cotton is more wrinkle-resistant than linen.

Which is better? It depends on your purpose…and on your budget.

What Color is Natural Linen?

linen fabric

Natural linen comes in a variety of shades. The shade of the fibers stems from the conditions under which an individual plant grows. The most common colors are shades of off-white and grey, which include:

  • Ecru
  • Oatmeal
  • Taupe
  • Beige
  • Gray

It can be difficult to get flax fibers to hold a dye. For this reason, you’ll most often see linen in its natural color.

What is the Highest Quality Linen?

woman dressed in linen

Many people judge cotton by its thread count, that is, how many threads there are in a square inch of fabric. The more threads, the softer and finer the cotton. [2]

Thread count is inaccurate for judging linen. Rather, it’s important to look at:

  • Where the flax was grown
  • The conditions under which it grew
  • How it was handled and processed

The finest linen today comes from Belgium and from Normandy, France. Both places have a cool climate, which is the best climate for growing high quality flax. Flax fibers should be spun close to the time they were harvested. And the most skilled flax weavers today are in Italy. [3]

What is Flax Linen Used For?

Any fabric that has been part of our lives from the time of the hunter-gatherers has to be special. And one of the things that makes linen special is its incredible versatility. There’s a reason that we refer to different classes of household products as “linens.” Though it’s a luxury fabric today, it used to be ubiquitous.

Clothing

couple in linen clothing

Before cotton became widespread, linen was the fabric from which many items of clothing were made. Breathable and absorbent, it will keep you cool in warm weather, which was probably why it was so popular in Ancient Egypt. 

Today you’ll find linen in high-end shirts, blazers, trousers, and dresses.

Upholstery

Linen’s strength and durability make it an excellent choice for upholstery and furniture coverings. Its price can put it out of reach for some, but if price is no object, linen upholstery is an elegant, long-lasting choice.

Bedding

Soft and absorbent, linen is a popular choice for sheets, pillowcases, and bedspreads, especially in warm climates. 

Towels

When many of us think about bath towels, thick, fluffy cotton comes to mind. Linen bath towels are different: comparatively flat and rough, with a waffle texture. However, many high-end hotels use linen for their towels and bathrobes. That’s because it’s incredibly absorbent, quick drying, durable, and odor-resistant.

Linen dish towels are very popular for the same reasons.

Handbags and Backpacks

Because linen is so durable and hard-wearing, it’s an excellent fabric for handbags and even backpacks.

Table Linens

There it is again: an entire class of housewares grouped under the name “linens.” Linen tablecloths and napkins add a touch of elegance to any table, and, if cared for properly, will do so for a very long time.

Food Preparation and Storage

linen bag

Linen bread bags are hot right now, but people have used them for food storage for a very long time.

Bakers also use a linen cloth called a couche to help a ball of bread dough to keep its shape while rising.

Art Supplies

Linen is a traditional surface for oil painting. Canvas, cotton, and other fabrics are currently less expensive for painting canvases today, however.

Linen Characteristics

What is linen like? What are the characteristics that make linen what it is? Take a look.

Natural

Linen is a natural fiber. It’s woven from the spun fibers of the flax plant.

Woven

Linen is a woven fabric, rather than a knit fabric. Linen is woven using a plain weave. That is, weft fibers are woven through the same number of warp fibers at a 90 degree angle.

Slubbed

Linen often has a slubbed texture. That is, it has spots that may feel rough or uneven when compared to the rest of the fabric. This comes from the fact that some flax fibers are thicker than others.

Stiff

Flax fibers are stiff and thick. This gives linen fabric its slubbed texture, as well as its strength and durability.

Porous

Linen’s thick, stiff fibers limit how tightly linen can be woven. As a result, linen is fairly porous. This means that it’s delightfully breathable and can conduct heat away from your body.

Pros and Cons of Linen Fabric

There’s a lot to love about linen fabric. There are also some distinct disadvantages.

The Good

Why do we love linen? Let us count the ways.

Durable

Linen is one of the strongest fibers. It’s 30 percent stronger than cotton, for example. 

Absorbent

Linen is highly absorbent. It can hold 20 percent of its own weight in water.

Lint-Free

Linen doesn’t leave lint behind.

Pill-Resistant

In addition to being hard wearing, linen doesn’t pill like some other fabrics.

Heat Conductive

Linen’s porous texture means that it guides heat away from your body. This makes it ideal for hot climates.

Breathable

Linen is also highly breathable. Linen sheets and clothing are great for keeping cool.

Hypoallergenic

Linen is hypoallergenic. So allergy sufferers will find a friend in this fabric.

Moth Resistant

Worried about moths eating your clothes? Not if those clothes are made from linen!

Quick Drying

Its porosity, combined with the natural qualities of flax fibers, means that linen products dry quickly. This makes it an excellent material for towels, bathrobes, and more.

Sustainable and Eco-Friendly

Linen is made from natural fibers. Flax plants grow across a variety of climates. They’re hardy, and can grow with rainwater alone. 

Different industries use different parts of the flax plant, so flax production results in very little waste.

Processing flax requires very little in the way of chemicals, irrigation, or energy.

Finally, because linen is a natural fabric, when you’re through with it, it biodegrades. Linen is also recyclable.

The Not So Good

No fabric is perfect. Here are some of the problems with linen.

Wrinkles Easily

Linen wrinkles easily. And it won’t easily let go of those wrinkles. If you like linen, you should learn to like ironing, as well.

Holds on to Stains

Although linen doesn’t take dye very easily, it loves to hold on to stains. So be careful.

Can be Expensive

Before there were cheaper alternatives, linen was ubiquitous. Now, though, it’s something of a specialty fabric. And that means it’s often expensive.

Can Shrink

Linen is also prone to shrinking. Wash your linens in cool water to prevent this from happening.

Fibers Weaken in Sunlight and Hard Water

Hard water and sunlight can weaken flax fibers. So store your linens carefully.

How Easy is Linen to Sew?

Do you want to know how to sew linen? Sewing linen isn’t hard, but there are a few tips and tricks for getting it just right.

Pre-wash linen fabric to avoid shrinking. Pre-wash it in hot water to minimize shrinking after the garment is finished. Hang dry.

Steam-press or damp-press your linen before you lay it out

Because linen stains easily, use tailor’s chalk for marking, rather than a marking pen, even a washable one.

Follow your pattern’s grain line carefully because linen has a large, visible, napped grain.

Use a rotary cutter to cut thicker linen fabrics. It’s easier.

Use a regular point needle, and make sure to match the size of the needle to the weight of your fabric. Choose needle size 11/80 for lightweight linen and 14/90 for medium weight linen.

Choose a cotton thread. It’s a good idea in general to match the fiber content of your fabric and thread: synthetic thread for synthetic fabrics and natural thread for natural fabrics.

To prevent fraying, you might want to clean finish your seam edges. You could also use seam tape or double bias tape

You could also pink your seam edges.

Looking after Linen 

Although it’s not necessary to treat linen as a delicate while sewing it, linen items do require some special care.

First, always check the manufacturer’s care instructions. This can save you money and aggravation. Also, if your item is a linen blend, the fibers with which it’s blended may change its care needs. If your item is dry clean only, do not attempt to toss it into the washing machine.

If your item is machine washable, wash it in the short or delicate cycle. Does linen shrink? You bet it does. So use cold water.

Use a mild detergent for delicate fabrics.

You can also hand wash your linen in cold water.

As we said, linen is prone to shrinking, so it’s best to avoid the dryer. Instead, hang linen items to dry on a padded hanger, or lay flat on a drying rack. Don’t wring your linen to remove water. Instead, roll it gently in a clean towel and press extra water out before hanging your item to dry.

Because linen isn’t great at holding dye, dyed linen items can bleed. So wash them separately.

Try to remove stains with club soda. Never bleach a linen item. Better yet, in case of resistant stains, consult a professional.

If you need to iron your linen, set your iron to the linen setting, and iron while the item is still damp. If your item is already dry, use your iron’s steam setting or spritz the item with water before ironing.

Lovely Linen

Linen has been part of the fabric of our lives for over 30,000 years. It’s durable, sustainable, attractive, and easy to work with. Over time, cheaper fabrics have supplanted it for many of its original purposes. But it’s difficult to top linen’s luxurious appearance and feel.

Sewing linen is easy. Caring for it requires a bit of work, but it’s well worth it.

Do you enjoy working with linen? Do you have any linen care tips you’d like to share? Leave them below!

linen fabric

REFERENCES:

  1. Kvavadze, Eliso, Ofer Bar-Yosef, Anna Belfer-Cohen, Elisabetta Boaretto, Nino Jakeli, Zinovi Matskevich, and Tengiz Meshveliani | 30,000 Years old wild flax fibers – Testimony for fabricating prehistoric linen. Science 325(5946): 1359 | https://dash.harvard.edu/handle/1/4270521
  2.  Kathy Price-Robinson | What does thread count really mean? | https://home.howstuffworks.com/home-decor/bedroom/thread-count.htm
  3. Truth About Thread Count | Pure Linen, The World’s Strongest Natural Fibre | http://www.truthaboutthreadcount.com/pure-linen.html

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