Material Stories: what is linen?
Linen: it’s a fabric that manages to look both casual and luxurious at the same time, whether it’s tailored to the body or draped over a bed.
Well-known for keeping you cool in hot weather, linen might bring to mind breezy beachwear, artistically rumpled tablecloths or summer suits paired with panama hats. But French Riviera aside, linen has a whole host of extraordinary properties you can benefit from year-round - not just in summer.
You might have noticed that we sell a lot of linen products, from clothes to pyjamas to bedding. And as specialists in long-lasting stuff, we have good reason to. For the first instalment of our ‘Material Stories’ series, we’re going to explore this remarkable textile: where it comes from, how sustainable it is and, of course, its long-term durability.
Where does linen come from?
Linen is one of the oldest woven fabrics in the world - there’s evidence of it being made over 30,000 years ago. Woven from the fibres of the blue-flowered flax plant, this natural fabric is today grown all over the world, though European linen is considered the best.
Ready for a school biology throwback? The fibres that are extracted from the flax are the phloem - tiny tubes under the bark that transport nutrients up and down the stem. These fibres are long, straight and hollow, which give linen some of its distinctive properties.
Separating out these fibres is a very laborious process, and care must be taken to preserve their length. This is why a surprising amount of processes in high-quality linen production are still carried out by hand - even harvesting.
Once extracted, the long, soft flax fibres are then ready to be spun into yarn, before being woven into linen fabric. As for the rest of the plant, nothing goes to waste - the flax seeds and other byproducts all have other uses.
We love linen because of its inherent durability. It’s about 30% stronger than cotton, and can last for years and years - even generations. It’s so strong, the ancient Greeks used layers of thick linen fabric as armour!
This strength is all down to those long flax fibres. Because the length of the fibres used to spin linen yarn are inherently long and thick, the resultant fabric is very strong and smooth. A low-quality cotton, on the other hand, which is spun from short, fluffy fibres, will be more prone to tears, deformation and pilling.
And what’s more, did you know that linen is moth resistant? Clothes moths and carpet beetles prefer to eat animal-based materials such as wool, silk and cashmere - so you don’t need to worry about finding your linen clothes riddled with holes.
Is linen sustainable?
The way linen is grown, processed and worn all contribute to making it an inherently sustainable fabric. Flax plants can grow in poor quality soil, and are generally happy to subsist only off rainwater (at least in cooler climates). Cotton, on the other hand, needs a huge amount of water to grow - approximately 20,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of cotton.
On top of this, these tough flax plants generally require few fertilisers or pesticides. Impressively, linen often comes close to meeting the organic standard without even trying. Growing these low-impact plants both improves biodiversity and regenerates soil. This is in contrast to cotton, which is one of the world’s most chemically intensive crops.
And finally, linen is biodegradable. So much so, that you can even put pure natural linen in your home compost bin - it will start to decompose in just a couple of weeks. Speed up the process by cutting it into small pieces.
The ‘wonder fabric’
Linen has been highly prized for centuries, and its properties bring particular relief in hot climates. There are a few reasons for this: firstly, linen fabric feels cool to the touch, thanks to its relatively high conductivity (the same principle that makes metal ‘cold’). It’s also highly breathable, which keeps you from getting hot and clammy.
What supercharges this cool, dry feel is linen’s ability to wick moisture away from your skin - in fact, linen’s hollow fibres can actually absorb 20% of their weight in moisture without feeling wet. This is ideal not just for clothing, but for bedding too. Suffer from night sweats? Linen can keep your temperature regulated, and your bedding dry.
Linen’s natural crispness causes linen clothes to hang away from the body instead of cling, which keeps you feeling breezy. And if you suffer from skin conditions or allergies, linen homeware can help - its dryness inhibits bacterial growth, and can in turn reduce dust mites.
Although you probably won’t want to wear a single layer of linen in winter, its breathability makes it great for year-round layering. Whereas other fabrics will trap both heat and moisture, linen will keep you warm whilst wicking moisture, so that you feel both cosy and dry.
What does linen look and feel like?
Linen makes up just 1% of global fabric production. It’s expensive, and isn’t often seen in high street stores - particularly 100% pure linen. So if you’ve never owned a linen garment, you might not know what they’re like to wear.
Linen feels dry, crisp and smooth - pure linen isn’t usually very soft, but that changes the more you wear and wash it. Well-loved linen quickly becomes supple, silky and soft. Linen sheets (such as our Piglet in Bed range) are often prewashed for softness.
One thing you should know is that linen is notorious for wrinkling easily - always bear this in mind when purchasing a perfectly smooth new linen garment! However, this doesn’t have to be a problem; unironed linen has a natural charm that exudes laid-back style. But if you’re not a fan of wrinkly linen, we suggest looking for blended linen fabrics.
How to style linen
Linen has a trademark textured naturality that’s completely unique. It can be dyed in a whole host of vibrant colours, but isn’t often printed on. Combined with its luxurious quality, this gives linen garments a simple, dressed-down, grown-up look that suits absolutely everyone.
To really lean into linen’s relaxed crumpledness, we love wearing pieces that would normally be sharp: blazers, shirts and structured dresses, for instance. Keep your linen a little wrinkled (hang to dry and skip the iron) to keep a more slubby, artsy look that feels casual and carefree. Or for more dressy occasions, crisply iron on a high heat to embody effortless luxury.
And in your home, linen sheets make any bedroom look like a dreamy sanctuary. Linen’s warm, textured look is miles away from hotel-perfect sheets - so embrace it! We think linen sheets, too, look their best when crushed, crinkled - and even a little unmade. Never has a messy bed looked so sophisticated.
Feeling inspired to bring more linen into your home and wardrobe? Shop our linen collection here - full of long-lasting, responsibly-made linen products.
Want to learn more about how to look after linen? Check out The Linen care guide, by Untied.
Intrigued to learn more? Read our other article on 6 reasons why Buy Me Once loves linen.