From tiny flax seeds, lengthy yarns are spun
One of the oldest and best-loved textiles in the world, linen has been prized throughout history for its strength and durability that makes it so versatile. From ships’ sails to shield coverings, tablecloths, baking couches and wrappings for billiard cues, linen is a cloth of many talents. It’s 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.
Cultivation of flax plants probably began 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.
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.
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.
The next part of the process is a little more pungent. Sticky proteins that bind the fibres together have to be broken down by retting. This essentially means rotting the flax through prolonged exposure to water and is best done in stagnant or slow-flowing water like a pond or a bog where natural bacteria help break down the cells. It might sound unpleasant but this natural method is much more environmentally sustainable than the alternative chemical process.
Once broken down, the stalks are dried then stored and cured. Next, ‘scutching’ removes the woody part of the stalks so that the fibres can be split out by scraping a wooden blade down the length of the fibres. ‘Scutching bees’ became popular in the US in the 19th century, transforming this dull and time-consuming task into a fun communal activity.
‘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.
Seasalt linen is 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.