Linum Usitatissimum translates from Latin as “most useful linen.” In naming this species, botanists recognized the inherent value of the humble flax plant. For ten thousand years or more, man has known this gentle gift of nature was the source of textiles with special properties: soft hand, rich color absorption, lasting durability, and unrivalled comfort.
Always ecologically-correct, every part of the flax plant is at man’s service. The seeds provide oil for dyes, paint, cosmetics and floor coverings. When ground, they form a flour used in poultices. The fibers have been used as sutures. The by-products of linen production are processed into a pulp used for banknotes or fiberboard. However, flax is most renowned as the raw material for an extraordinary fabric.
Flax is one of the few crops still produced in Western Europe, with nearly 130,000 acres under cultivation annually. Climatic conditions in this region are perfect for growing flax, and increasing worldwide demand for linen makes it an important cash crop.
The growing cycle is short and sweet, with only 100 days between sowing in March and harvesting in July. The plant ripens by the end of June into golden yellow color, and then it flowers, dotting the fields with blossoms of violet, blue and white. This display is over quickly, however, for each flax plant blooms for one day only.
Harvesting: To preserve the full potential of each plant, flax is never mowed but must be uprooted. Up through the Second World War, this was an exhausting process done by hand. Today, mechanical grubbers do this tiring work.
Drying: After harvesting, the flax is stacked in hedges to dry. Once dried, the seeds are removed.
Retting and Turning: Then flax is exposed to moisture to break down the pectin that binds the fibers together. In the past, flax was retted in rivers, particularly in the Lys region, which imparted a lovely golden glow to the fibers. Today, for ecological reasons, retting is no longer performed in rivers. The preferred method still requires the intervention of Mother Nature as the flax is spread out in the fields and exposed to rain, dew and sunshine for several weeks.
Stripping and Combing: During these mechanical processes the fibers are separated from the straw (shives), and then graded into the short fibers (tow) which is used for coarser yarns, or the longer fibers (line) which will be used to create the finest linen yarn.
Spinning: Drafting and doubling, or carding, draw out the long or short fibers into sinuous “ribbons” which are then plied together on spinning looms in various weights and thicknesses. The fine yarn is “wet spun” to impart a smoother, shiny appearance. The tow are commonly “dry spun” yielding a less regular and napped yarn.
Weaving, Bleaching and Dyeing: Before any weaving occurs, the linen yarns are examined for strength, evenness and pliancy. Close tolerances on these properties are required because of the great speed of today’s power looms. The looms of Libeco·Lagae run around the clock and are monitored by a central computer to ensure quality and efficiency. During their 8-hour shift, each weaver can now be responsible for 10 to 15 looms.
After weaving, each yard of fabric is examined and quality tested. If the fabric is not being used in this raw state, it moves to the finishing department where it is bleached and/or dyed. Bleaching linen requires consummate skill—enough chemicals to remove any pectin or shive residue, but not so much as to compromise the structure of the fibers. After bleaching or dyeing, various treatments to make it crease- or soil-resistant can be applied.
Linen is crisp, clean and comfortable. Soft, yet strong and durable. The more it is used, the softer and stronger it becomes. It can absorb up to 20% of its weight in moisture before it feels damp, and easily releases moisture to the air to remain cool and dry to the touch. Flax remains colorfast and launders beautifully. It has the additional advantage to be non-allergenic. Flax requires considerably fewer pesticides and fertilizers than other crops. The fibers are recyclable and eventually biodegrade.
For all these reasons, linen offers fashion designers unlimited creative potential, and wearers lasting enjoyment. Bedding of pure or blended linen is in vogue once more. We never tire of linen at the dining table. The utility of linen in the kitchen is unrivaled. No other fiber can offer this unique blend of luxury and comfort, supreme elegance and down-to-earth practicality.
For more information see www.libeco.com