When summer rolls around, linen clothes are the first things to come out from the closet. But we're certainly not the first to use linen. Linen is the oldest textile in existence. And when we say old, we mean really old. Prehistoric. As such, it's seen a lot, having an extensive history of use cases. It was instrumental in the economies of nations like Ireland and France, used to dress royalty and even influenced language.
But first, what is linen and why do people like it?
Linen comes from the flax plant and is what's known as a bast fiber. Bast fibers are fibers that are collected from the inner bark, the bast, which surrounds the plant's stem. Other bast fibers include hemp, ramie and mulberry.
Linen's got a lot going for it, especially compared to other fibers like cotton. It's more durable than cotton, making it perfect for heavy-duty applications. Because it's quick-drying and breathable, linen is a go-to for warm weather garments.
It's hypoallergenic, naturally anti-bacterial, and because the fibers are so long (it can grow up to 6 to 8 inches, compared to cotton which maxes out around 2.5 inches), linen fabrics are smooth, anti-static and won't pill. Unlike wool, linen won't attract moths.
And, climate advocates tout linen's eco-friendly production. Linen takes around 100 days from seed to harvest whereas cotton takes about 160 days. This timeline means more material can be produced in less time. Linen also uses far less water than cotton. it can grow in poorer-conditioned soil, grows close to the surface and doesn't require irrigation. One report estimates that a linen shirt uses about 6.4 liters of water while a cotton shirt uses 24 liters.
B.C. (Before Clothes)
While we're used to seeing linen in woven form, as clothes and bed spreads, this was not the original use of linen. Before linen was used, the flax plant from which it is harvested was domesticated in the Fertile Crescent region of Ancient Mesopotamia and was grown for its rich seeds thousands of years before it was used to make textiles. The flax seeds were used to produce food and for oil.
The earliest known evidence of linen used as a textile goes back about 30,000 years. In this study, scientists found evidence of woven flax in the Dzudzuana cave in the foothills of Caucasus, Georgia. They posited that these fibers were used by pre-historic humans to weave baskets, haft various tools and even for clothes. Most of the flax fibers they discovered were in their natural, undyed state, while others were determined to have been dyed using roots.
In Ancient Egypt, linen garments were reserved for nobility — priests and pharaohs. Its intensive process made it a luxury and was thus only worn by those with a high social stature. Because of this, it was also used as a form of currency. Ancient Egyptians also used linen in the mummification process, as a way to wrap the deceased, believing that the whiteness of the garment displayed purity and wealth for those entering the afterlife.
The oldest known woven garment was made with flax, from which linen is harvested. Known as the Tarkhan Dress, it was found in the Tarkhan cemetery near Cairo in 1913 and radiocarbon dating estimates that the dress dates back to between 3482 and 3102 BCE, over 5000 years ago.
Linen would make its way further into Europe. The earliest known records of an actual linen industry was during the late Bronze Age in Greece.
Flax continues to be grown around the world with the highest quality flax being grown in countries such as France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Ireland is also known for its deep history with linen. Though Irish linen is held in high regard today, it's due in large part to the French. In the late 1600s, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, throngs of Huguenots fled from France seeking asylum from religious persecution. The Huguenots brought with them the knowledge and skill of linen production, upping the existing linen industry in Ireland. Huguenot exile Louis Crommelin was instrumental in advancing Ireland's linen industry and had submitted plans for its improvement. He was appointed as the "overseer of the royal linen manufacture of Ireland" and imported looms, improved existing Irish spinning wheels and taught Irish weavers the craft, among other skills.
His contributions were so successful that the town in which he settled, Lisburn, which is near Belfast, became the epicenter of linen production. During the American Civil War, America had experienced a major shortage of cotton due to a cotton famine. Ireland helped import linen into America to help with textile demand, solidifying Belfast as 'Linenopolis'.
The word 'linen' comes from the Latin word for the flax plant, 'linum'. It evolved from there to referring to the fiber to the fabric. Because of its widespread use in bed sheets and table cloths, the word also is used as a catchall for these textiles.
We also get linings and lingerie from linen. As you might guess, this is because clothes were often sewn with an inner layer of linen fabric and undergarments were commonly made using linen.
Several other words also derive from linen. In linen production, two types of linen fibers are separated from each other: the shorter fibers are referred to as the 'tow' and often used in strenuous applications like burlap. The longer fibers of linen are known as the 'line', which is where we get the word from. These long staples were used to determine a straight line and are the better quality fibers.
Ancient Egyptians may have used linen as a form of currency long ago, but the practice is still something that occurs in the modern era. The United States uses linen fibers in its paper currency. The dollar bill is comprised of 75% cotton and 25% linen, the result of which is a unique crispy feel that is far more durable than standard paper used for writing.
Where to Buy Linen Products
Libeco is a Belgian brand that produces high-end bedding and home goods using Belgian linen. If you're looking to upgrade your bedding, add a luxurious touch to the kitchen, you couldn't do much better than this.
Direct-to-consumer brand Brooklinen is a great way to up your home life with linen, without a hefty price tag. The brand doesn't limit itself to just linen (the textile and the bedding), but also offers loungewear and cotton options, too.
Because linen is several times stronger than cotton, it take longer to break down and become soft. That's why vintage linens are highly desirable. You can find antique French linen textiles from over a hundred years ago still in great condition.
Many brands shift their collections in the spring and summer to include linen. Mr Porter has one of the largest selections of menswear on the web ranging from everyday basics to top-tier luxury goods. And its website is comprehensive enough to let your search by materials. Here's what they've got in the linen section.
While basically every brand pivots to linen in the spring and summer, Blluemade specializes in garments made from the finest linen specifically. The range of elevated goods has influences in workwear and is made in New York.