Fabric Files: Linen
This content was originally written for Indiesew and has been adapted for this blog. It was originally published on July 19, 2018.
We're back with another installment of Fabric Files! This week we're talking about the literal OG of fabric: linen. In this post, we'll talk about where linen came originated, how it's made, and what makes it so irresistibly charming to so many sewists.
Linen is “bast" fiber made from the flax plant. “Bast” simply means that the plant fiber is collected from the inner bark surround the stem of the plant. Bast fibers tend to be soft and flexible.
The History of Linen
The Latin name for the flax plant is linum, which is likely where from the word linen was derived. Linen is likely the oldest textile known to man. The oldest linen sample studied was found in a cave in Georgia that dates back 36,000 years and was likely made with wild flax fibers. Egyptian mummies were wrapped in linen that is still intact today.
Flax was first grown as a domesticated crop in ancient Mesopotamia and at that time linen fabric started to be produced in larger quantities. Today, the best linen fabrics originate from flax grown in Western Europe and Ukraine.
If you want to know the detailed breakdown of linen’s backstory, I highly recommend reading this fascinating article.
Linen fabric is absorbent and breathable, often feeling cool to the touch. It is an inelastic fiber, which is why linen creases (and stays creased) so easily.
Woven linen typically has a semi-loose weave and a fluid drape, making it ideal for any type of garment where a flowy substrate is desired. But despite its movement, linen is still a stable fabric with body, making it relatively easy for the beginner sewist to work with. Knit linen fabrics are available, but are less commonly used than their woven counterparts.
Linen fabric often has a “slub” texture, where tiny visible knots are noticeable on the fabric surface. This, and its tendency to wrinkle easily, are what are often considered part of linen’s charm. Finer linen fabric will have a less noticeable slub texture.
Perhaps one of linen’s most shining qualities is its durability. Linen fabric does not pill easily and is resistant to moths. And unlike most substrates, linen is stronger wet than dry.
Linen is expensive to produce for three reasons:
- Flax tends to be a finicky crop to grow.
- The extraction of the bast fibers from the flax plant is incredibly laborious.
- The inelasticity (compared to cotton or wool) of linen thread makes it difficult to weave as it's prone to breakage.
For this reason, there aren't large quantities of linen fabrics being produced at this point in time. Because there's still a high demand for this fabric, the price has been driven up due to scarcity.
How to Sew with Linen
Woven linen fabrics are relatively easy to sew with, requiring little to no special consideration. Sew your linen fabrics with a universal sewing needle, all-purpose thread, and your sewing machine's default settings. When pressing linen fabric, use your iron's hottest setting with lots of steam.
How to Care for Linen Fabric
Linen fabric is also relatively easy to care for because it’s such a durable fabric. Before washing, some linen fabrics will feel very stiff to the touch. This is because sizing (a starch-like compound) has been applied to the fabric during production. After washing your linen fabric it will soften up considerably.
Because linen is prone to some shrinkage, it should be prewashed on a warm cycle and dried on a medium tumble cycle. After the garment is sewn up we recommend washing in cold water and line drying to preserve the fabric.
Creases can be tough to iron out of linen fabric, so it’s best to iron when the fabric is still slightly damp. And remember that part of linen’s charm is its tendency to wrinkle, so embrace it!
How to Buy Linen Fabric
Since linen is difficult to produce, it’s often one of the most expensive apparel substrates on the market. You can expect to pay between $15 and $25 per yard for 100% linen fabric.
Apparel linen fabric tends to weigh between 4 and 7 ounces per yard (115 to 198 gsm). Lighter colored linen fabrics (like those you see below) that weigh 4 ounces per square yard or less can be somewhat sheer.
Linen fabrics blended with rayon, hemp, or cotton are typically offered at a lower price point with a similar hand to pure linen fabrics.
Garments Best Suited for Linen Fabric
Throughout its history, linen was made into a wide variety of objects like books, art canvases, currency, and shoes. Today, linen fabric is primarily used for apparel and upholstery.
For clothing, linen fabric is a suitable substrate for any garment that requires movement and flow. We especially love the Highlands Wrap Dress sewn in linen. In fact, the sample shown below is sewn in a linen/cotton blend.