Linen – the original sustainable material

Flax (Linum usitatissimum), from which linen is made, is one of the oldest continuously cultivated plants in the world. Ancient Egyptians used the finest woven linen as an expression of class and, most notably, wrapped their mummies in linen bandages. The fabric's ability to absorb water and conduct heat made it ideal for hot climates and undergarments.

Linen with tapestry woven decoration in wool with a small amount of gold thread, 130 - 340 AD, Akhmim, Egypt. Museum no. 361-1887. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In Europe, both sexes have worn linen undergarments for centuries, taking the shape of shirts, shifts, and chemises. From the early Middle Ages to the 18th century, households cultivated the exact amount of flax necessary to fulfil their needs. Making flax into linen for clothing, bedlinen and domestic textiles was an occupation undertaken at home.

Hand coloured engraving depicting Irish linen making, William Hincks, 1791. Museum no. 28813:6. © Victoria and Albrt Museum, London

When cotton became mass-produced in the 19th century, linen lost its universal place in fashion. Nonetheless, linen continued to be worn in summer and hot climates. In the 20th century, linen was a key fabric for formal summerwear. It was used on its own and blended with other fibres.

Linen's diverse use and dominance in Western fashion is no surprise. The rich soil and frequent rain of Northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands uniquely suit the flax plant, resulting in the highest quality flax and linen. While other countries, including China and Canada, do grow flax, the need for irrigation, fertilisers, and pesticides negates many of the plant's considerable environmental benefits. Today, the European Union grows 70% of all flax.

When grown in its ideal geographical zone, the cultivation of flax produces no waste. All parts of the flax plant are used: the long and short fibres and seeds are made into textiles, paper, varnish, oil, animal fodder and bio-materials. After the plants have been pulled (harvested), the root remnants fertilise and clean the soil, thereby improving the productivity of soil for 6 to 7 years. Growing flax requires no irrigation, no fertilisers and no herbicides and pesticides, and therefore does not pollute rivers or groundwater. Flax even retains 3.7 tons of CO2 per hectare per year.

The film below follows the process of producing linen fabric – from the flax fields of Northern France to the factory floor.

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From seed to fabric, sustainability characterises the production process of flax:

  • Sowing: growing flax takes around 100 days. When grown for its fibre, flax seeds are sown close together to encourage the plant to grow upward rather than sideways, which maximises the length of fibres.
  • Pulling: the plants are pulled when they are between 90 and 120 cm high. They are then gathered into bundles and dried for 2 weeks.
  • Retting: the retting process separates the fibres from the plant. If flax is grown in the optimal geographical location, the fibres are separated through dew-retting in which thin layers of flax are spread out across grass fields to decompose. Water-retting is undertaken in drier climates, during which process flax is submerged in pools or water streams. The rotting of the plants pollutes the water streams, thereby undoing some of flax’s green footprint. After the retting process, the flax is fully dried.
  • Scutching: the straw around the fibres is broken and removed.
  • Combing: the flax is combed to remove any remaining pieces of straw and to align the fibres.
  • The flax is then spun and woven into linen.

Linen continues to be a popular fabric today. Eco-conscious menswear designer John Alexander Skelton uses both locally produced materials as well as sourcing vintage materials in his designs. His recent collection features a jacket and trouser ensemble made of 19th-century linen grain sacks, which testifies to linen's longevity. Rather than avoiding the darned and visibly-repaired sections of the sacks, Skelton made the well-worn linen into an aesthetically appealing outfit that counters the 'fast fashion' model.

John Alexander Skelton. Photograph by Ryan Skelton