Linen: from Field to Fabric

Linen has been prized throughout history for its strength and versatility.

From ships’ sails to shield coverings, tablecloths, baking couches and wrappings for billiard cues, linen is a cloth of many talents.

It is a natural fabric made from the beautiful, blue-flowered flax plant Linum usitatissimum and many commonly used words are derived from ‘linen’: ‘lingerie’, ‘lining’ and even the word ‘line’, from the practice of using a single thread to measure a straight length before rulers were invented.

Flax flowers, fibre and yarn

Cultivation of flax began thousands of years ago

Records show that linen was being created six to seven thousand years ago in North Africa, but early forms of linen date back even further. Traces of flax fibres thought to be 34,000 years old have been found preserved in a cave in Georgia, which showed evidence of having been knotted and dyed bright colours.

Relics of tomb paintings depict linen being worn by slaves and Pharaohs alike in Ancient Egypt where its coolness and natural anti-bacterial properties were ideal for the harsh climate. The Romans applied colourful dyes to Egyptian linen around 400 BC and by 700 AD the cultivation of flax had spread to Europe.

Wild growing flax

From tiny flax seeds, lengthy yarns are spun

Flax flourishes in cool, damp environments and takes 100 days to grow from seed to the point at which it is harvested. Hand harvesting produces the highest quality linen, as pulling from the root rather than cutting makes the most of the long fibres that run the length of the stalks.

Linen is made from bast fibres taken from the inner bark of the flax plant and removing and preparing these is a lengthy and labour-intensive process. In ancient Mesopotamia, the challenges of production leant such an exclusivity to linen that it was reserved solely for priests and royalty.  Even today, although many processes have been mechanised, there are still parts of production that are best achieved by hand.

Traditional drying of flax

First, the stalks need to be dried in the open air for several weeks. Then threshing removes the seeds. They don’t go to waste and are used to sow the next crop of flax, but they’re also a well-known superfood, often added to cereals and granary loaves.

Linton Park, Flax Scutching Bee, 1885 (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)

‘Heckling’ removes the shorter tow fibres which make coarse, lower quality linen fabric. The remaining fibres can be up to three feet long and help give the final fabric its characteristic strength and durability. They are pale yellow in colour, very soft and fine – hence the term ‘flaxen’ to describe light blonde hair. These lengthy filaments are then spun into yarn which can either be woven or knitted to create the different linen fabrics and beautiful garments that we know and love.

Heckling the flax fibres

Our carefully chosen garment dyes

Seasalt linen is always garment dyed in a carefully chosen Cornish palette. Garment-dying means the garment is made first and dyed as a single piece, giving a unique colour and a special degree of softness that gets better and better with age. Printed, plain or striped, our linens are always spun from the finest quality raw flax and our fabric mill has over 20 years experience in the linen industry. Whichever linen styles you choose, you can be sure they’ll share the same wonderful softness and drape that feels so good against your skin.

Seasalt garment-dyed linen clothing