If you're anything like us (which we're guessing you are since you're here) you care about shopping and sewing sustainably. As light is being shed on the environmental and social impacts of the apparel and textile industries, it's easy to feel like there aren't many sustainable options out there. While it can be difficult to determine which fabrics and products are produced ethically, certain fibers are more sustainable by nature. Two standouts are linen and hemp. We will discuss both, but today, let's start by talking about why linen is one of our favorite fibers!
What is linen fabric?
Linen is a natural fiber that is derived from the flax plant, which is known for its resilience and ability to grow in poor soil conditions. Few, if any, chemical pesticides and fertilizers are required for the cultivation of flax plants due to their hearty nature. This makes flax a much more sustainable crop than cotton, which is very resource-heavy.
In addition to its low resource use, flax helps clean our air by retaining 3.7 tons of CO2 per hectare each year, and after the plants are harvested, their root remnants break down and fertilize the soil to improve productivity in the following years.
Lastly, flax produces no waste when grown in its ideal geographical zone. The plant can be used to make textiles, paper, varnish, oil, seeds, and animal fodder. Flax fiber is even used in the automotive industry to reinforce plastics!
Now that we've covered where linen comes from, let's explore its technical properties and benefits!
The technical properties of linen fibers
One of the most impressive things about linen is its strength; it's two to three times stronger than cotton, and it becomes even stronger when wet! It is also less prone to pilling than natural fibers like cotton and wool because individual linen fibers are much longer. This means that linen garments will last for years and need to be replaced less often.
In addition to strength, linen is also highly breathable and moisture-wicking. It allows air to flow freely through the fabric and can absorb up to 20% of its weight in moisture before feeling damp. Both of these properties help to keep the wearer cool and dry, which makes it a great choice for warm weather! If you read our post about cotton, you'll remember that it also absorbs water well, but it doesn't dry quickly. This is another property where linen has a leg-up, as it dries very fast and will not hold on to moisture as long.
Another fascinating property of linen is its ability to inhibit bacterial growth, as well as being hypoallergenic. This is due to the natural chemical composition of the fibers, including their lignin content, which can vary slightly between plant varieties. However, multiple varieties of linen were tested against staphylococcus bacteria and all were found to reduce its growth. This quality makes it ideal for home textiles like bedding and upholstery, where allergens and bacteria can quickly accumulate.
As you can see, the technical properties of linen make it an incredible fabric that is both durable and practical. Its strength, breathability, moisture-wicking abilities, and hypoallergenic nature all contribute to its longevity, versatility, and overall sustainability.
The table below acts as a quick reference guide for the properties we covered:
Recommended applications for linen fabrics
Much like cotton, linen is used for a wide array of applications including clothing, bedding, towels, and even rugs! Historically, it was also used to make rope, fishing nets, and sailcloth. It can be dressed up or down depending on how it is styled and whether or not you choose to iron it. Ultimately, what you make with linen is only limited by your imagination and personal taste.
One misconception about linen is that it needs to be dry-cleaned. As we covered above, linen is a very durable fabric, which is even stronger when wet. It handles machine washing like a champ, and it is also more heat resistant than a lot of other fibers. It can be submerged in boiling water to sanitize it, and dried in the dryer too! So, why do so many linen clothing items say "dry-clean only"? This is because linen is prone to shrinking, so if the fabric is not adequately pre-shrunk, linen clothing can shrink when washed. So, if you're making your own clothing out of linen- fear not! Go ahead and wash and dry it before starting (twice if you're nervous about shrinkage) and then you're ready to start sewing. Once your masterpiece is complete, you should have an item that can be washed and dried as needed and it will only get softer with each wash!
So, how sustainable is linen?
Everything from the low impact of flax plants to the durability of linen fabric makes this fiber a great sustainable choice! While conventionally grown linen still has environmental concerns, it is vastly more sustainable than its counterparts. The Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres gives conventionally grown linen a C rating, with conventional cotton falling in the lowest category at an E. In addition to that, organic linen is ranked in the highest category, making it one of the most sustainable textile choices available! (NOTE: we don't agree with all of the rankings for synthetic fabrics in this study, as new information has come to light about microplastic pollution since it was done, but the information about natural fibers is still relevant.)
Now that we've covered the origin, technical properties, and sustainability of linen fabric we hope that you've found a few more reasons to love it as much as we do! If you weren't already a committed fan, maybe this is the season that you'll try incorporating some of it into your summer wardrobe!