Woven from flax fibres, linen is one of the oldest fabrics on the planet. Prized by the ancient Egyptians who used it as money, the mummified pharaohs were wrapped in it to signify status and purity.
Linen has many excellent qualities: it’s tougher than cotton, lasts longer, is hypoallergenic, keeps you cool in summer, warm in winter and is among the most stylish and comfortable fabrics you can wear. Here’s our guide to all things linen.
What is linen?
Linen is made from the flax plant, a woody stem that grows in cool damp climates – France and Belgium are the world’s biggest exporters accounting for almost 90% of the flax trade. Small amounts are also grown in Holland, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland, Italy, Egypt, Canada and China.
Linen is the yarn woven from the fibrous core of the plant stems, a time-consuming multistage process. First, to preserve the length of the fibres, the stems must be plucked not cut. The flax is then laid out to decompose in order to soften the stems before the next stage of manufacturing where the stems are pulped and the fibres removed. Then the dirt must be extracted, and the fibres rolled and stored for a further period.
Longer fibres are “wet spun” to create a soft yarn ideal for weaving into the fabrics we use for bed linen and clothing. Shorter fibres are “dry spun” to create a thicker, coarse thread that’s woven into hard-wearing upholstery fabric.
How tough is linen?
Made from a yarn that’s 30% stronger than cotton, linen is a fabric which offers serious longevity. But the structure of the fibres isn’t the only thing that makes it last longer than other materials. While linen absorbs more moisture than cotton, its breathability means it doesn’t hold water like cotton does.
A fabric that doesn’t retain moisture from your body is a less-than-friendly environment for bacteria. Less bacteria means less odour, less irritation, and fewer germs to break down the flax fibres, which makes your linen sheets and clothes last and last.
Because linen only gets softer with washing, vintage bedding is prized and traditionally would have been handed down the generations. A quality linen set is only getting into its stride after three years and will still be giving faithful service 20 or even 30 years later.
When to wear linen
Men’s tailoring sees linen as a summer fabric famous for its ability to keep you cool in the blazing sun. The fabric’s low thread count allows excellent air penetration, and the naturally absorbent fibres help to wick moisture away from your skin, keeping you drier than cotton.
A linen suit is a joy to wear on sunny summer days – think posh picnics, regattas, a summer wedding or graduation. Add a Panama hat, suede brogues, and tasteful sunglasses and you’re ready to say “Yes!” Monsieur Del Monte.
If you feel that going for the full linen look leaves you too prone to creasing – a hallmark of quality linen fabric – you can mitigate the wrinkles by opting for a linen-cotton blend which gives you the comfort of flax with the structure of cotton.
Linen trousers and shorts are a great summer choice and look perfect with a short sleeved weekend shirt or a knitted polo top. Never leave for a cruise without packing linen – in fact in hotter climes you can’t really do without it; a linen shirt is incredibly comfortable when the thermometer soars.
How to care for linen
Keep your linen suit or jacket in a quality, breathable suit bag and dry clean in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. The rest of your linen clothes – shirts, trousers and shorts, you can usually bung in the washing machine on a cool colour wash.
Do take care when washing linen garments to check your detergent for bleaching agents which you should never use. Bleach makes linen turn yellow. When ironing linen, place a damp cloth on top of the fabric first – this stops the surface from acquiring an unsightly shine.
Linen is a versatile and practical fabric that’s strong, durable and comfortable. Look after it well and it will give you years of service.