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The History Of Linen: Fashion’s Ancient Future

The history of linen is a long – and sustainable – one! See why the future of fashion is actually ancient

By Chere Di Boscio

Plant based materials like Tencel, modal and bamboo fibres all may be great innovations in textile manufacturing. But there is one fibre that has been used pretty much since the dawn of civilisation: linen.

Linen is made from the cellulose fibres of the inner bark the flax plant. Known as bast fibres, flax is just one of several in a family of sustainable plants that includes jute, raime, and hemp. All of these plant fibres have some incredible qualities, such as drying faster than either cotton or wool and being stronger when wet. For these reasons, it’s common that even today, items such as the sails and ropes for ships are made from the stuff.

Turning bast fibers into cloth is a long process. Unlike wool where raw fleece can simply be washed and then either carded or combed into a preparation for spinning, bast fibers need to be separated from their woody stems and prepared for spinning in a multi-step process.

Image below: linen jumpsuit by Cult Gaia

This History of Linen: Ancient Origins

The history of linen in fashion goes way back to around 7000 BCE. It was the Babylonians who first started weaving flax and are credited with starting the linen trade. But it was the Egyptians who are known for linen in the ancient world. Not only for clothing, but for wrapping mummies up! Thanks to the extremely dry climate of the Egyptian desert, linens found in Egyptian tombs have been remarkably well-preserved, and well preserved linen cloth has been found in pharaoh’s tombs in the forms of fine linen dresses, tunics, and linen housewares.

Linen continued to be a staple of clothing in the Middle East for millennia, and its use spread to the Western world, where it was commonly used for underwear, sleepwear, and was woven into bedsheets, napkins, and other household fabrics. No wonder during the Middle Ages, the term “linens” became to be synonymous for household goods such as bedding, tablecloths, and towels. Linen makes for especially good towels, as it dries faster than cotton.

Image below: Tencel and linen jacket and skirt by Mara Hoffman

An American History

Later, linen was brought to the Americas by settlers. As with food, many pioneers would grow their own flax so they could harvest, process and spin it into cloth to make clothes with.  That being said, the British were still exporting  clothing textiles to the new colonies, and dominated the trade.

What really killed the use of linen in fashion at the time, though, was the Industrial Revolution. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 and the horrendous use of slave labour made water-intensive cotton production much cheaper and easier than linen production. In fact, cotton production in the United States doubled each decade from 1800 because the cotton gin meant that fewer slaves were needed to process it, thus they could be sent to the fields to plant and harvest it instead.

Even with the mechanization of flax processing, spinning, and weaving finally starting in the 1830s and 1840s, flax would never catch up to cotton production, and eventually, it fell out of fashion, literally.

Instead, it was mainly used for tablecloths, drapery, and napkins. The history of linen as a material for starched uniforms and crisp cuffs, or elegant summer clothes also continued. Indeed, in the late 19th century, it was de rigueur for upper class men to have a summer suit made of light coloured linen. Women also had summer or warm weather linen suits, dresses, and riding habits, especially in the Southern United States and warmer climates such as the Caribbean and Mediterranean.

Image below: linen/cotton blend trousers by Mara Hoffman

The Use Of Linen Today

Today, linen is being rediscovered as a sustainable luxury fabric, and in recent years, it has made its way back not only into elegant homes, but onto the runways, too. Gabriela Hearst, LemLem and Nanushka are but a few sustainable brands that regularly use linen in their collections, and it seems the material is ever-growing in popularity.

I asked We asked linens expert Jessie from iQ Linens to learn more about the linen revival. iQ Linens is a US manufacturer of natural table linens for sale online. No matter the style, material, or size table linens you need, iQ Linens has a fantastic array of colours and fabrics from which to choose for any occasion.

What are the benefits of using linen in fashion?

There are too many to count! As with other natural textiles, linen is durable and breathable. In fact, linen is so breathable, it feels cool to the touch. Perfect for summers! Linen doesn’t pull, won’t hold a static charge, and is naturally insect-resistant. After several washes, linen clothing feels softer. While it may not offer the glamour of other natural textiles, it’s practical, beautiful and comfortable.

That’s amazing! Are there any downsides?

Yes. Even freshly-ironed linen wrinkles easily. Wearers should keep in mind that clean lines and a smooth look may be difficult to achieve in linen outfits. However, many consider the casual, wrinkled appearance of linen as part of its relaxed charm.

Also, budget shoppers will find that high-quality linen is usually more expensive than cotton and synthetic fabrics. Oh, and since it’s so breathable, linen isn’t great for cold-weather wear.

So, what do you think is most suited towards being made from linen?

Linen is well suited for beachy, summer looks. Breezy, light linen blouses pair well with denim and khaki.

Linen dresses and trousers make beautiful, comfortable choices for office wear. Lightweight linen pajamas are fantastic for muggy summer slumber as well.

Where do you see the future of linen?

The history of linen stretches back for millennia, so it’s safe to say that linen will be a permanent fixture in the fashion industry.

As more fashion leaders create eco-friendly processes, linens will rise in popularity, as this natural fiber is quite sustainable. The flax plant requires less water and produces less waste than cotton plants, and undyed linens are completely biodegradable. It’s easy to hand wash – no need for the dry cleaner, really!

Increasing numbers of designers are blending materials like Tencel, wool or cotton in with linen to reduce wrinkling and to offer interesting textures. And increasing numbers of conscious shoppers are looking for linen, not only in fashion, but for homeware, too, since they’re learning just how sustainable this material is.

In many ways, you could say this ancient textile is the fabric of the future!

Other references for this article came from here, here and here. For more information on linen homeware, please click here. 

Chere Di Boscio

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