Textile Properties of Linen

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Linen is one of the most sought-after textiles in the world, but what do you know about it? In this lesson, we'll see how its properties impact its use.

Linen

There are many fabrics in the world. If you're a textile designer, how do you choose which ones to use? Every textile has advantages and disadvantages, so you have to select the one that is most appropriate for each project. That means you've got to know them. One of the oldest textile fabrics in the world, as well as one of the most sought after, is linen.

Where Does Linen Come From?

To really understand linen, we need to start at the source. Linen comes from a plant called Linum usitatissimum, which is a mouthful, so instead most of us just call it flax. That's the same plant that from which flaxseed and flax oil are derived. Flax was originally native to the Mediterranean region and Europe, and seems to have spread along human trade routes into India and China.

Flax

Bundles of flax
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How do we know this? Flax is one of the oldest domesticated plants in the world. In fact, fabrics made from flax have been dated up to 30,000 years old in Eastern Europe, 9,000 years old in Syria, and 5,000 years old in India and China. Flax was amongst the first plants to be fully domesticated in the Fertile Crescent, and they were processed by the first urban civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt. The Egyptians loved it so much they even used it to mummify their dead.

So, how does the flax plant become linen? Textiles are made with fibers, long and thin filaments that can be spun together. In flax, these are found in the bast, which is inside the stem of the plant. Flax fibers are long and great for spinning, but can be damaged if extracted improperly. Often, the fibers are accessed by applying bacteria to the plant, which eat away the stalk. The fibers are then collected, spun into threads and woven into linen yarns that can be processed into a linen fabric. Natural linen fabric ranges in colors from yellowish to grey to off-white.

Linen production is a tradition spanning millennia
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Advantages of Linen

Linen is one of the most expensive and sought after of the plant-based fabrics. Why? What makes it so desirable? The advantages of linen come from some of its most notable attributes.

  • Absorbency: Perhaps the single most notable property of linen is how absorbent it is. Fibers from plant basts are all hygroscopic, which means they can absorb lots of moisture. In fact, linen can absorb up to 20% of its weight in moisture. This makes it highly desirable for many garments and sheets as it will literally pull perspiration off the body. As an added bonus, linens actually increase their tensile strength when wet.
  • Breathability: Nobody wants to wear a fabric that will feel wet all the time, so what happens to the water in linen is very significant. Linen fibers release the moisture back into the air very quickly. In fact, linens dry almost instantly because the fiber itself cannot hold air or heat. As a result, linen fabrics tend to feel cool to the touch and extremely breathable. The fabric draws in perspiration, which cools the body, and allows heat to pass through essentially unobstructed. This makes linens highly desirable for sheets, clothing, and drapery in warm climates.
  • Durability: Finally, linens are famous for their durability. Unlike other fabrics, all the great things about linens tend to improve with use. Washing linens makes them stronger, shinier, and softer. The high durability of linen also makes it a little more rigid than other fabrics. This prevents it from clinging to the body. This drape-like quality of linen garments is another thing that contributes to its breathability. Finally, the durability of linen prevents it from producing lint. Pretty cool, right?

Linens are breathable, lightweight, and durable
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