What is Linen and How Sustainable is it?
Have you ever wondered why laundry (from shirts to sheets) is sometimes referred to as “linens?”
It’s simply because of its long history, “linen” is practically synonymous with “fabric.”
Of course we know there are many other types of fabric, but linen is one of the oldest. It goes back thousands of years.
From the mummies in ancient Egypt to baby Jesus, it was the go-to material. In Mediaeval Europe, the poor (which is to say basically everybody bar royalty) used it for everything, clothing to fishing nets.
In the modern world, linen is still incredibly useful, though its prevalence has certainly been diluted overtime. Still, it’s used to make clothing, eco friendly rugs, sustainable bedding, sustainable towels, and is even blended with cotton to make the US dollar bill.
But we’re not here to talk about “greenbacks;” we’re here to talk about the green on our backs. In other words: eco friendly fabrics.
So what is linen and how sustainable is it?
Just as we’ve done with bamboo fabric, hemp fabric, lyocell, and modal fabric, we’re looking at sustainable and ethical fashion from the inside out. We’re reading the fine print on labels and digging into the plants that become our favorite garments.
In linen’s case, that plant is flax. It’s one of the world’s most sustainable plants, but, as with any material, the sustainability of the resulting fabric is, well…nuanced.
Between microplastics and worker exploitation, our fast fashion world can use a rehaul. What role does flax linen play in that? Is linen sustainable?
Let’s make like the flax plant and dig our roots deep to find out.
WHAT IS LINEN MADE OF?
Like other bast fibers (those made from the stem of a plant), linen is made from fibers of the beautiful, blue-flowered flax plant. The word “linen” is derived from the plant’s Latin name “linum usitatissimum”.
For thousands of years, flax has been used to make fiber, and it has been grown in nearly all countries around the world. In fact, anthropological evidence found wild flax was used in woven fabric some 36,000 years ago.
As such, it bears a lot of cultural and spiritual significance.
In ancient Egypt, linen was valued so much that it was used as currency. It also symbolized light, purity, and wealth, hence it was the fabric of choice in mummification, at a thread count much finer than we would find today.
Ancient Romans and Greeks also used linen as a valuable commodity.
In ancient Mesopotamia, linen was something owned only by those in higher classes—due to its high cost and the fact that it’s difficult to work with.
Linen is even mentioned in the Bible and has made its way into most of the world’s religions.
So there’s a lot of hype but what’s so special about linen then?
Linen is moisture-wicking and temperature regulating, it keeps the wearer cool in the heat and retains heat in the cold. Thus it’s a versatile fabric for warm-weather clothing because it stays cool and crisp in the summer.
It’s also antibacterial (making it a popular choice for bandages) and has the ability to hold dye colors better than some other fabrics.
What Does Linen Fabric Feel Like?
There’s a lot of variety in the texture of linen. Depending on the thread count, linen can either be coarse and cheap enough for the poorest, or fine enough for the richest to covet.
It’s one of the more supple fabrics, and while most people wouldn’t agree that it’s soft to the touch initially, it gets much softer over time. Generally, its softness falls somewhere in between hemp and organic cotton.
HOW TO MAKE LINEN
Exactly how is linen made?
Linen fiber is extracted by cutting or pulling the flax plant from the ground. Yielding the longest possible fibers is very important when it comes to linen. For this reason, hand-harvesting is commonly used to pull up the entire plant. Otherwise, the flax stalks are cut as close to the root as possible.
Like grain, the seeds are removed in a process called winnowing. After the seeds have been removed, the woody stalks are crushed between metal rollers. This separates them into longer and shorter portions.
Once the fibers are extracted and separated, the longest pieces are spun into sustainable yarn and then woven into fabric.
If this sounds like a painstaking and laborious process, it is. While mechanization is used in most cases, some linen fiber preparation is still done by hand in the centuries-old traditional manner.
IS LINEN SUSTAINABLE?
For those unfamiliar with the flax plant, let’s take a little look into how it’s grown:
- The time from planting seeds to harvesting is about 100 days (whereas cotton takes 150 to 180 days).
- Flax grows well in cool, humid climates and does best in soil that’s moist and well-plowed, like those of Europe. It is thought that Belgian flax is the finest quality flax in the world, but it is also grown in Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland, Austria, France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the British Isles.
- Flax doesn’t do well when competing with weeds, so in some cases, herbicides are used.
- Flax does do well with little water (just rainwater and a little humidity). Only 6.4 liters of water are needed to produce a linen shirt—compared to 2,700 liters for a non-organic cotton shirt.
- Non-organic flax needs few pesticides or fertilizers.
We don’t want to get (f)LAX on all of the ways the plant is sustainable, so here are a few reasons why it is:
- The entire flax plant can be used. Have you seen flaxseed oil? Ground flaxseed food products? Linseed oil for furniture? These are all products of the flax plant, meaning that when it’s picked to produce linen, nothing else has to go to waste.
- While pesticides and herbicides are sometimes used, chemical inputs aren’t commonly added—making most flax almost-organic-without-even-trying.
- Flax cultivation is great for our planet—according to the European Confederation of Linen and Hemp (CELC), European Flax Fiber retains 250,000 tonnes of CO2 every year.
- Linen is one of the most durable fibers, it lasts longer than other clothing and upholstery.
- Even when linen does reach the end of its life, it doesn’t need to rot in a landfill. As a natural fiber, it’s fully compostable (as long as toxic chemicals, dye, or synthetic fibers haven’t been added).
Are There Any Sustainability Downsides To Flax?
When it comes to the growth of flax, there are few sustainability downsides.
While the crop is considered to be a good one for ecosystems and the environment as a whole, improper harvesting techniques may cause soil erosion.
Additionally, the retting process, or that which separates the linen fibers from its woody stalk, can have some drawbacks.
Retting does not require chemicals and is possible with just water. However, chemicals like alkali or oxalic acid are used by some manufacturers.
Dew retting is another alternative. The linen stalks are simply cut and left outside so that natural moisture (dew) softens the wooden stocks so that the fibers can be separated.
What About Organic Linen?
According to Common Objective’s Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibers, organic linen is one of the most sustainable fibers in the world, earning an “A” (the best rating). Non-organic linen gets a “C.”
As with cotton, the merits of the plant itself matters far less than how it’s grown.
While pesticides and fertilizers aren’t used often, excess nitrites (fertilizer) have been associated with flax cultivation and water pollution. When you buy organic linen, you know none of these harmful chemicals are used.
Here’s the catch though. Globally, organically grown linen doesn’t even make up 1% of the world’s total linen.
While brands like Eileen Fisher aim to source exclusively organic linen in the coming years, we still have a lot of work to do to make sure this sustainable fiber is really sustainable.
IS LINEN ETHICAL?
We know linen can be sustainable, but we also know it’s labor-intensive. What does this mean for workers?
Picking flax by hand for hours on end is hugely laboursome—and if the work is not supported with fair and safe labor conditions it can spell humans rights abuse.
The processing of flax presents some concerns, too—especially when chemicals are used. The chemicals may not only put workers at risk, but can also lead to environmental pollution which impacts the health of the communities as a whole.
That being said, in order to up your #SustainableFashion game, look for brands who choose GOTS-certified organic linen. This at least tells you workers weren’t exposed to chemicals.
The GOTS certification, being a seed-to-shelf organic assurance, lets you know water-only or dew retting was used instead of chemical retting. It also extends to the chemical-free nature of the bleaching and dying process, but the most ethical and eco friendly choice you can make here is to just embrace linen’s natural color.
Next look for brands that use fair trade labor practices, either with certifications or transparency about their wages and worker protections to back them up.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF LINEN
Let’s talk about the benefits of linen:
- Linen gets softer over time! Talk about a sustainable fabric that promotes longevity—this one gets better the longer you own it.
- Linen is resistant to sunlight, so it won’t break down after long term exposure to the sun (making it good for eco friendly curtains) and protects wearers from harmful UV rays.
- It dries well, which is why many eco friendly and organic bath towels include it.
- Linen is strong, durable, and does not pill
- It absorbs and holds dye well, so less dye is needed during production.
- Since the Middle Ages, linen has been used as a soothing fabric, thanks to it’s hypoallergenic and antibacterial properties.
- Linen is thermo-regulating (i.e. keeping us cool in summer and warm in winter).
- It’s unique! Linen has a natural luster and its irregular fiber bundles give it a texture that is uncommon with other fibers.
Like with any natural fabric, there are some disadvantages of linen:
- It isn’t as common as cotton, and certainly isn’t as common as synthetics. Combined with its more intensive manufacturing process, be prepared to pay a little more for linen clothing, bedding, etc.
- Like cotton, linen is known for shrinking—especially when washed in warm or hot water.
- Linen takes the cake for being the most notoriously wrinkly fabric. If you love the feel of linen clothing (but want to look freshly pressed), be prepared to do some ironing. However, don’t expect it to last too long—you’ll likely be a little wrinkly after a bit.
HOW TO CARE FOR LINEN?
Speaking of ironing, rest assured knowing you can iron linen to your heart’s content. Linen can handle high heat and may also need a bit of spray starch for that crisp, clean look.
If you want to keep that linen button-up fitting well, only wash it in cold water so you don’t shrink it.
Also, be careful how you fold it. If a crease constantly forms in the same area, it can lead to tearing.
HOW DOES LINEN COMPARE TO OTHER NATURAL FABRICS?
Cotton Fabric vs. Linen
Linen is superior to cotton in a number of ways.
Linen is stronger and more durable than cotton (you know, that thing that makes up denim and corduroy?).
For anyone obsessed with their new linen towels, there’s more good news in that linen dries much faster than cotton—which is perfect for those who can’t stand the smell of mildew-y bath towels (which is hopefully everyone).
Its water-wicking abilities mean that it will just draw in liquid (sweat or water) before drying quickly. Cotton, on the other hand, absorbs rather than wicks moisture so it can lead to chafing and a soggy bottom during high output activities.
While cotton and linen are both hypoallergenic, linen tends to be a better choice for people with allergies.
There’s one big drawback to linen compared to its cotton kin. While they’re both natural fabrics derived from plants, flax takes longer to harvest and it’s more difficult to weave the fibers into fabric.
While linen is more durable than cotton, the latter is more flexible and provides some additional stretch. For anyone who’s worn both, it’ll come as no surprise that cotton is softer—which is due to the fact that flax fibers are rougher and woven less tightly.
Hemp Fabric vs. Linen
Linen is more comparable to hemp than cotton, since both are lightweight, temperature regulating, UV resistant, and durable. They also both come from low water-intensive plants.
The most significant difference is that hemp fibers are even longer than flax ones, 15 feet compared to 3 feet. That means hemp clothing is even more durable than linen, but consequently coarser to the touch.
LINEN CLOTHING BRANDS
- Coyuchi: Coyuchi is known for using some of the best Earth-friendly materials—including organic linen. From scarves to sustainable pajamas to eco friendly bedding, we’d wrap up in them any day.
- MagicLinen: As one of our all-time favorite Etsy shops, MagicLinen has been sharing the magic of linen with thousands of worldwide customers. They use OEKO-TEX certified European flax and ethical and transparent processes in their curtains, bedding, clothing, and more.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON LINEN FABRIC
Once upon a time, the world’s oldest crafted textile was worn by Mesopotamian royalty and ancient Egyptian mummies.
While linen isn’t associated with as much cultural significance today, it’s easy to see why the fabric still ends up in our wardrobes—even after tens of thousands of years.
As with other eco-friendly textiles, we can look at linen on a spectrum of sustainability.
Some options, like organically-grown and fair trade produced linen, are much better for people and the planet than linen that’s been manufactured and grown with the use of chemicals, fertilizers and pesticides.
So, let’s answer the big question: what is linen? It’s a sustainable fabric that becomes a super-sustainable fabric when grown and produced in a responsible and ethical way.
For that, linen lines up with our top fabric picks. Good thing so many sustainable fashion brands are starting to see how special it is.
Are you a linen lover yourself?
Plant a flax seed in the comments with your favorite sustainable linen brand. We’d love to grow the conversation around this wonderful textile.