Linen : A fibre obtained from the flax plant, for the most part produced in central and northern Russia, Belgium, Holland, Ireland, France, Egypt, and northern Italy. Russia produces the most Belgium produces the best. Large quantities of flax are raised only for the seed in other parts of the world, such as Dakotas, Minnesota, northwestern Canada, India, Argentina and southern Russia. If fibre is desired, the plant must be harvested before the seed is fully ripe. If seed is wished the plant must be allowed to grow until the fibre is too coarse, harsh, and woody for fine linens.
Image source : Plant Resistance Genes
Necessary factors of the production : While the flax plant is not difficult to grow, it flourishes best in cool, humid climates and within moist, well-plowed soil. The process for separating the flax fibres from the plant's woody stock is laborious and painstaking and must be done in an area where labor is plentiful and relatively inexpensive. It is remarkable that while there is some mechanisation to parts of the fibre preparation, some fibre preparation is still done by hand as it has been for centuries. This may be due to the care that must be taken with the fragile flax fibres inside the woody stalk, which might be adversely affected by mechanised processing. The growing of flax seed has been found profitable because of the high prices paid for the seed by manufacturers of linseed oil, as oil especially useful in making paints and varnishes. None other has yet been discovered which better combines with paint pigments or with varnish gums, or which dries so well after applying. It has therefore no competing imitations or adulterants, and no substitute is practicable save possibly corn oil. Linseed oil is utilized to the practical exclusion of other oils in the manufacture of linoleum, oilcloth, oilsilk, patent and enameled leather, and printers' ink. It is also used for the manufacture of waterproof fabrics not made of rubber, for enameling wood-pulp buttons, for making opaque window shades, for a few medicinal purposes, for the making of soap (especially valuable for washing woodwork), and for various minor purposes.The oil is pressed out of the seed in heavy presses like those used for the cottonseed oil. The cake remaining after pressing is a valuable stock food.
Labour of love
* Up through the Second World War, the Flax were harvested by hand. I can only imagine how exhausting this work would have been. Still I am very charmed by this little Canadian film, which demonstrates the time consuming work of getting Linen out of Flax.
Image source : Libeco.com
- Harvesting : Flax must be treated carefully, so to preserve the full potential of each plant, flax is never mowed but must be uprooted. Until the second half of the 20th century, this was painstakingly done by hand. Today, mechanical grubbers do the work.
- Drying : After harvesting, the flax is stacked in hedges to dry. Once dried, the seeds are removed. The seeds provide oil for dyes, paint, cosmetics and more.
- Retting and Turning : The woody core and pectin which binds the fibres together must be allowed to naturally decompose in the process known as retting. This was once done using river water to speed the natural breakdown process. Today, for ecological reasons, retting is no longer performed in rivers. The preferred method still requires the intervention of Mother Nature as the flax is spread out in the fields and exposed to rain, dew and sunshine for several weeks.
- Scutching (stripping) and Hackling (combing) : During these mechanical processes the fibres are separated from the outer layer (shive), and then graded into the short fibres (tow) which is used for coarser yarns, or the longer fibres (line) which will be used to create the finest linen yarn.
- Spinning : Drafting and doubling, or carding, elongate the long or short fibres into sinuous "ribbons." These are then plied together on spinning looms in differing weights and thicknesses. The fine yarn is "wet spun" to impart a smoother, shiny appearance. The tow are commonly "dry spun" yielding a less regular and napped yarn.
- Weaving, Bleaching and Dyeing : Before any weaving, the linen yarns are inspected for strength, evenness and pliancy. The great speed of today's power looms demands close tolerances on these properties. After weaving, each yard of fabric is examined and quality tested. Bleaching linen requires consummate skill—enough chemicals to remove any pectin or shive residue, but not so much as to compromise the structure of the fibres. After bleaching or dyeing, various treatments to make it crease- or soil-resistant can be applied.
Linen yarn : Is spun from the long fibres found just behind the bark in the multi-layer stem of the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum). In order to retrieve the fibres from the plant, the woody stem and the inner pith (called pectin), which holds the fibres together in a clump, must be rotted away. The cellulose fibre from the stem is spinnable and is used in the production of linen thread, cordage, and twine. From linen thread or yarn, fine toweling and dress fabrics may be woven. Linen fabric is a popular choice for warm-weather clothing. It feels cool in the summer but appears crisp and fresh even in hot weather. Household linens truly made of linen become more supple and soft to the touch..
Image source : Santa Fe Creative Tourism
Character of the flax fibre : The flax fibre is a slender, straight, tube-like thread of from twelve to thirty-six inches long, averaging about twenty inches. The fibre is found in a thin layer running up and down the stalk of the plant immediately under the bark. It is considerably stronger than that of cotton, but is more easily injured by bleaching and chemicals. The linen fibre, like that of cotton, is composed of almost pure cellulose. Hence like cotton it is attacked and burned up when exposed to acids. Linen fibres range from white to bluish Gray in colour. The best flax in the world, that grown in or near the city of Courtrai in Belgium, is cream-coloured. The colouring of the fibre, however, is probably due rather to the methods of treatment after it is gathered than to the variety of the plant or of the soil upon which it grew.
Image : From Be Linen movie
I hope you enjoyed todays reading, learning more about the source of Linen.
Friendly ~ B.S