Linen is one of the oldest fabrics in fashion history. And before it was even considered one of the world’s favored stylish fabrics, prehistoric societies have already been using linen threads as far back as thirty thousand years ago!
Linen is a strong, durable, and extremely versatile fabric that has played a part in many European cultures for centuries.
Soft, breezy, and sometimes a little wrinkly, linen is the perfect addition to your summer wardrobe.
But all these characteristics beg the question: is linen sustainable? Is it eco friendly? Let’s delve into an in-depth analysis of linen and its many uses, characteristics, and history.
What Is Linen?
Linen is a plant-based bast fiber that has had many uses throughout human history. It is commonly used in bedding and has historical ties to luxury and a life of affluent living. Linen is one of the oldest known textiles, with applications of the material from tens of thousands of years ago.
You may be familiar with linen for its seemingly coarse, yet unique texture. Linen is naturally moth resistant, anti-microbial, and is an incredibly versatile fabric.
Yet despite all the good things about linen, it only makes up about 1% (or less) of the fabrics produced by the textile industry as a whole—why?
The answer lies in how linen is made and all the labor that goes into making linen clothes and bedding. To dig deeper into how this is so, let’s take a quick look at linen throughout the history of humanity.
A Brief History Of Linen Fabric
Linen is one of the earliest textiles humans learned to cultivate and weave. Dyed flax fibers were found in settlements from as old as 36,000 years ago , which demonstrates that flax was already being used as fabric even in prehistoric times.
Linen was also frequently used to mummify notable individuals in Ancient Egypt. This was done because linen was perceived as something that symbolized light, purity, and wealth.
The fabric was also used in other ancient civilizations like those in Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece—it was even mentioned in the Bible!
If you dove deeper into the history of linen, you’d witness its unique interweaving with human history and how linen was seen as a luxury fabric ever since humans discovered its use.
Today, the term ‘linens’ has become nearly synonymous with the word fabric in itself. You will often hear people talk about bed linens, kitchen linens, etc. But in actuality, these household items are not always made from linen fabric.
The one thing we have to understand about linen is that it has always been expensive. Even thousands of years ago, before capitalism became our primary form of economy, linen was already perceived as something of a luxury. In Ancient Egypt, linen was even sometimes used as currency!
The reason why this is so is that linen has always been difficult to work with. Apart from the laborious cultivation process, it was also an added challenge to weave flax yarn without breaking the strands.
Back then, there were even traditions of handing down linen sheets as family heirlooms—which also goes to show how durable and lasting this material is. And although it does get softer with age and washing, linen remains a strong and sturdy material.
Today, linen clothes have become overshadowed by cheaper synthetic fibers. Fabrics like polyester and cotton are much easier and cheaper to produce than linen clothing. As a result, linen is now a much less frequently used textile and is seen as a luxury item now more than ever.
How Is Linen Fabric Made?
Linen fabric is a bast fiber made from the stalk of the flowering plant: flax.
Like all plant-based fabrics, linen begins with cultivation. The flax plant is grown annually in the cooler part of the year as too much heat could cause crop death and reduce yield.
Growing flax takes considerably less water than growing cotton and does not require nearly as many pesticides or herbicides. In fact, growing the flax plant often entails little to no chemical treatment and is frequently done organically without any external intervention.
However, because weeds still need to be controlled, farms may sometimes use herbicides and tilling to prevent reduced crop yield. If you want to make sure that no harmful chemicals were used in the production of your linen, go for organically made linen instead.
The flax plant may be harvested by hand or with the aid of machines. And because obtaining long fibers is extremely important for creating high-quality linen yarn, harvesting is a crucial aspect of the production process.
Hand-harvesting is ideal to obtain the longest fibers possible, but if not, machine cutting as close to the root is the preferred method.
After harvesting, the leaves and seeds of the flax plant must be separated from the stalk, and this is done through a process called winnowing.
Once done, the next step is to separate the outer fibers and the interior fibers from each other through retting. Retting may be done through several methods either chemical retting, water (mechanical) retting, or dew retting.
Dew retting is the most sustainable option as it does not require additional resources. Dew retting involves laying out the stalks in fields or ponds in order to ferment/rot, this helps remove the outer layer and reveal the inner part of the stem, which is what’s used in linen fabric.
The downside of dew retting is that it takes time—a few weeks out in the fields eats up a lot of production time, so a lot of producers may be hesitant to use this process. Much faster but more environmentally destructive alternatives are mechanical retting and chemical retting.
However, these two methods require additional energy and resources and have a much higher environmental impact than simply dew retting the flax stalks.
If you want to buy linen fabric with the assurance that it didn’t undergo harmful chemical retting, certified-organic linen is the way to go.
After retting, the fibers are then rinsed and dried, and then undergo scutching; the process of removing the woody portion of the plant. This can be done by crushing the stalks through rollers. Removal may also be done by pulling them through a bed of nails.
The separated flax fibers are then combed to achieve uniform fiber length, with the short, irregular fibers being removed. During this process, fibers are separated by quality.
Once combed, the fibers are now ready for spinning! The short fibers are connected to each other using spreaders, and the resulting products are called rovings. These are then spun and reeled to prepare them for dyeing or weaving.
Reeling has to be done in a wet, humid condition to improve yarn cohesion. After drying the yarn, it is then reeled again into a bobbin and it is now ready for dyeing—if so desired. Undyed linen fibers come in various hues so dyeing is not always necessary.
At this point, the linen yarn is now ready to be woven into fabric for clothing, household purposes, upholstery, and industrial products.
Numerous Uses Of The Flax Plant
In sustainability discourse, there is a very high value placed on anything that has multiple uses. The flax is one example of a raw material that has multiple uses beyond just fabric itself.
The flax plant can be cultivated for its fibers or for its seed. When planted for fibers, the plant is longer and more densely planted. When planted for its seed, flax is shorter and has more branches. This difference in cultivation bears a resemblance to how hemp may be planted for various purposes as well.
Here are some of the ways the entire flax plant can be used beyond flax linen alone.
Flax seeds have gained popularity over the last several years. They are frequently used in many vegan recipes as an egg substitute, and they are readily available in supermarkets or specialty health stores.
But flax seeds have already been used in cooking for a long time and are used by artisan bakers, in making sweets, it’s even used in salads and meat dishes!
In any case, flax seeds have a versatile culinary application and may be used in so many great dishes.
Another way to use flax seed is to turn it into flaxseed oil (not to be mistaken for flax oil), otherwise known as linseed oil. Flaxseed oil may be used for paints and varnishes. In some instances, food-grade flaxseed may also be used as an alternative to fish oil supplements.
This oil can also be used for cooking, although it isn’t the most shelf-stable ingredient and may go bad quickly (relative to other vegetable oils).
The resulting seeds from oil extraction are not simply thrown away, they are crushed and turned into linseed meal, which in turn, is used in animal feeds.
Flax fodder can be used for feeding poultry, swine, and even horses! Sometimes, this type of fodder may also appear in dog food.
Although most commonly used for its stalk or seeds, flax may also be used for its flower.
At a certain point, the flax plant will yield a bright blue flower that can be used as a blue fabric dye—a vegan and natural alternative to the chemical dyes of today.
Another interesting product of the flax plant is paper! Trees are the most common material used to make typical paper but paper can also be made from flax and its bast fibers.
In some instances, the waste product from linen production is repurposed and transformed into wrapping paper—an application that truly embodies sustainability through reduced waste during processing.
The Pros Of Linen Fabric
Alright, now that we know the various applications of flax, let’s bring out focus back to linen fabric and its many characteristics, both good and bad. Let’s start with the good.
Being a natural fiber, even non-organic linen is completely biodegradable. It will decompose within a few weeks to a few months in landfills but may also be recycled for further use.
Unlike synthetic fabrics, linen has a much better life cycle assessment given that it doesn’t perpetually remain in the environment as a pollutant.
2. Naturally Anti-bacterial
Linen is also naturally anti-bacterial and hypoallergenic, which makes the fabric generally perfect for people who have sensitive skin. And if you can get linen undyed, that’s even better!
Because of its anti-bacterial properties, linen has been used in bandages throughout history—you may have even heard of them referred to in books, stories, and historical accounts.
3. Great Thermoregulation
One of the best features linen has as a fabric is the fact that it is an excellent thermoregulator.
Throughout history, linen was frequently used as fabric in warmer areas like Ancient Egypt—and not just for mummification either! Linen was used not solely for what it symbolized, but also simply because it kept them cool and protected against the warmth of the sun.
Plus, even when undyed, linen’s naturally white color helps reflect light and therefore keep you cooler throughout the day.
Linen is also able to keep you warm in cool weather, so it’s an excellent natural material for areas where the climate varies considerably.
Linen is also an incredibly durable fabric, a feature that adds to its value as a sustainable material. After all, the longer you can use an item, the more eco friendly it is in the long run!
Linen’s durability is also the reason why it was such a heavily used fabric back then, and why bed linen and clothing were even passed on as family heirlooms!
With proper care, linen can last up to three decades without significant wear and tear, which just does to show how durable this sustainable fabric truly is.
5. Naturally Beautiful
Linen threads have a beautiful color even without any dyeing. Linen comes in natural colors like beige, ivory, and gray.
The most traditional way to think of unbleached linen is as an ecru color, which is a combination of white and beige. Ecru is a neutral, earthy tone that’s easy to pair with virtually anything, making it a perfect addition to your sustainable closet.
6. UV Resistance
Linen fabric is also resistant to the rays of the sun and won’t break down when exposed to direct sunlight—a feature that helps extend the life of the fabric.
Unlike other fabrics like viscose, which may lose color fast under direct sunlight, linen holds dye extremely well even when exposed to the sun. This makes it a good option for sustainable curtains and other household applications that involve a decent amount of sun exposure.
7. Doesn't Pill
When it first comes out of production, linen may feel like a stiffy, dry fabric. However, this sustainable fabric only gets softer over time, yet another feature that adds to its durability and sustainability!
And unlike cotton, linen does not pill, making it an attractive alternative to cotton products.
8. Moisture Wicking
Linen is an extremely breathable fabric. Its moisture-wicking properties allow your skin to cool down while staying dry in hot, humid weather.
Instead of trapping heat and moisture in your body, linen allows it to evaporate and leave you feeling cool and breezy—something especially useful if you sweat easily or are prone to overheating.
The Cons Of Linen Fabric
No fabric is perfect, and despite the fact that linen has so many good points, it still has some notable downsides.
One of the biggest cons of linen as a fabric is how wrinkly it is. Linen is extremely easy to wrinkle and needs extra effort to manage if you really want to go for that soft and breezy finish.
Otherwise, you’ll need to learn to style wrinkly linen – which can also be an iconic move when done right!
Clothing management is another aspect of this material that you might want to consider. And because linen is wrinkly, it requires more ironing or steaming, which leads to more energy used throughout the fabric’s life.
Of course, we can’t forget the fact that linen is much more expensive than other fabrics like cotton, polyester, and even hemp.
While linen does have some pretty exemplary properties, it is quite an expensive fabric and might not be available to most consumers.
Linen is generally known as white fabric. But unbleached linen isn’t actually super white and has a lot of beige or grey tones. Most non-organic flax fabric undergoes a bleaching process to turn the linen’s natural color into something whiter (and more desirable, in some scenarios).
Dyes can be another problematic aspect of production since some of the dyes we use today can come from potentially harmful chemicals and compounds.
It can contribute to environmentally harmful water waste from factories which may further leech into our water systems. Want to know more about water in different places? Read more on our guide on the cleanest water in the world.
As we previously mentioned, retting is the process of separating a bast stalk’s inner and outer fibers. This may be done chemically, mechanically (water retting), or through dew retting.
Chemical retting has considerable environmental consequences and is one of the main reasons why non-organic linen isn’t a more sustainable fabric.
We included retting as one of the cons of linen because there really is no guarantee that the fibers made from flax were processed without additional, potentially harmful chemicals.
Water retting may be a more sustainable alternative to chemical retting, but it is still dew retting that is the most eco friendly option.
5. Pesticide And Herbicide Use
Flax cultivation can be done with little to no herbicides or pesticides. However, to preserve the yield of this crop, many farms will still use these harsh chemicals to ward away weeds and pests.
One way to avoid buying linen that has been processed with many chemicals is to go for its organic variation, which leads us to our next point…
Is Organic Linen A Better Choice?
Linen, in itself, is already quite a sustainable fabric. Even non-organically made linen has a much less carbon footprint than synthetic fibers like polyester.
However, many ethical brands today prefer to use organic linen. Is this because organic is actually the better choice or is it simply another way to get consumers to buy their products?
The great news is that organic linen is a much more eco friendly and sustainable choice than conventionally-produced linen.
With organic linen, you can guarantee that the fabric was not made with toxic chemicals or harmful dyes, and was produced in a process that supports the environment.
Whenever possible, we encourage you to purchase organic linen whether it’s for your tea towels and curtains or a trusty linen shirt.
So, Is Linen Sustainable?
After learning so many things about linen, can we truly say that linen is sustainable? We think yes!
Objectively speaking, linen is made with considerably fewer resources than many of its sustainable fabric counterparts such as organic cotton. It needs less energy, less water, fewer chemicals, and essentially less of everything, except maybe for human labor.
Nevertheless, when talking about sustainability, we have to consider more than just a material’s individual impact on the planet. We need to further the discussion by taking a look at how linen would hold up when faced with scale and production in large quantities.
Sustainability isn’t a concept that focuses solely on the environmental benefits of a particular material. Instead, it is an intersectional way of thinking that addresses the planet and human needs in a symbiotic and mutually beneficial manner.
We need to ask ourselves if linen can be made accessible. Can it be produced under ethical working conditions and still be affordable? Is sustainable linen fabric something we can use to replace organic cotton or hemp, for example?
Knowing the extensive and complex production process of linen, there’s no question why it often fetches a hefty price. And in nearly all scenarios, a linen shirt will be more expensive than your regular cotton tee.
These are all big questions that we need to answer in the context of our current economic and social climate. And unfortunately, we don’t hold the answers to these questions—but the good news is that we don’t need to have them right away.
Right now, we know that sustainable linen clothing is possible, especially with the help of third-party certifications like the Global Organic Textile Standard.
And if you are in a position where sustainable linen clothing is an option for you, then, by all means, go for it!
Linen bed sheets and clothes are by far the better options when compared to those made from synthetic fibers or even natural fabrics like non-organic cotton.
Sifting through the most sustainable fabrics available today can be an incredibly complicated task. There are so many things to learn yet so many things left unknown.
Navigating through our world as a conscious consumer is not an easy task.
It requires effort, learning, resources, and yes, a certain level of privilege. But with a little research on these topics, you can vastly improve how you make decisions as to which brands you want to support and which fabrics you want to buy.