Fibreshed fibre: Linen

Linen to me is teatowels and 1980s dresses and suits. It’s so synonymous with domestic fabric that we call our storage space for it a ‘linen closet’.

Pick-up binder in flax at Drouin

Pick-up binder in flax at Drouin, Victoria. Machine from Drouin flax mills: Feb 1945 Source: Museum Victoria

Linen’s lineage

Linen comes from the inner fibres of flax plants. It is the strongest of all plant fibres. Like sheep, linen was first domesticated in Mesopotamia. The oldest known piece of clothing is made of linen. We’ve been using this fibre for so long, it’s embedded itself deep into the English language. Line, lingerie, lining all have historical roots in linen.

What I’ve discovered is that Victoria has a special history with linen. In WWII, the British lost access to their normal sources of flax in Russia, Belgium and Ireland. Flax was used in coats and parachute harnesses, ropes, tarpaulins and glider covers. All important things for the war effort. The Brits told Australians to step up and gave Australia a quota. By 1942 that quota was 32,000 acres. Victoria’s share of that quota was 28,000 acres (a big jump from the 2,000 acres grown in 1930). Farms in places like Hamilton, Colac, Berwick and Drouin contributed flax. There were 10 mills and six deseeding depots at places like Drouin, Lake Bolac and Myrtleford. The Australian Women’s Land Army helped grow and harvest the crop. Sheep helped too, eating weeds in flax fields.

Land girls hand spreading flax for retting.

Land girls hand spreading flax for retting. Source: Museum Victoria

Farming flax

There are at least two varieties of flax plant: one grown for seed, the other for fibre. The varieties are specialised because growing for seeds reduces the fibre quality that is harvested. A 1.5 x 5m patch of flax will yield about 350gm of fibre.

Flax harvesting is a labour intensive process with amazing terminology. The entire plant is pulled up, or cut close to ground to maintain the length of the fibre. Plants are dried, then retted with water, dew, or chemicals (an alkali or oxalic acid) to loosen the outer stalk. Scutching removes the stalks. Tow is a byproduct of scutching, which can be used as upholstery stuffing. Heckling then combs the fibres ready for spinning. Flax can also be processed faster by ‘cottonising’, which uses cotton machinery. The resulting linen looses its characteristic look.

There is an environmental impact to flax. Growing it can involve pesticides, because flax won’t grow well with weedy company. The production of linen can include chemicals.

Land Army girls employed at the Drouin flax mill, Drouin, Victoria

Land Army girls employed at the Drouin flax mill, Drouin, Victoria. Source: National Library of Australia

Linen is like…

Light weight and cool, linen is also soft against the skin. It can be machine washed, dried and take hot temperatures. Linen has only moderate initial shrinkage. It improves with washing and age.

The natural colours of linen range from creamy beiges to light blue-greys. (Remember the girl with the flaxen hair?) It is not naturally white, this comes from bleaching.  The finest linen fibres are smooth with high lustre; lower grades can be wrinkly and slubby. Linen doesn’t take colour as well as cotton, but its lustre boosts the dye that does take.

Linen fibres measure around 25-150mm in length so it doesn’t pill. The fibre averages 12-15 microns. Linen wrinkles easily. If it is creased regularly along the same fold, the fibre will weaken in that area. Linen has no crimp which gives it a lovely drape that doesn’t sag. It breathes well and conducts heat away from the body. Linen absorbs and then looses moisture quickly, so it doesn’t tend to feel clammy when wet. It is anti-static and hypoallergenic. Linen is damaged by perspiration and bleach. It is resistent to moths, carpet beetles, dirt and stains. I’ve seen conflicting claims of mould-resistance and susceptibility to damage from mould.

Land Army girl winnowing flax at the Drouin flax mill, Drouin, Victoria

Land Army girl winnowing flax at the Drouin flax mill, Drouin, Victoria. Source: National Library of Australia

Linen letdowns

Linen is an expensive fibre, so it is often blended with other fibres to lower its price. It’s not a warm yarn, but it can be blended with wool or alpaca to make it suitable for inter-season garments.

The biggest downside for our local Fibreshed is that I cannot find anyone growing this fibre commercially. I have learnt that Stoney Creek Oil do grow the fibre variety of flax. They grow for seed, so it isn’t suitable for clothing.

Where to see flax locally

Stoney Creek Oil – Goldfields (n.b. their flax plants are grown for seed, not fibre)

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2 Responses to Fibreshed fibre: Linen

  1. norma says:

    Just spotted this and found it really interesting. I have a connection with the Weald & Downland Museum in West Sussex and they grow small scale linen to demonstrate the process to the public. It seems to grow well without pesticides there, maybe climate and using traditional methods makes a difference. Maybe a folk museum like that produces some small scale near you?
    Am thinking of incorporating Irish linen in my 1year1outfit.

    • cheliamoose says:

      I’m excited for you that you have access to a small amount of linen locally. It’s good to hear that flax grows well in your area. It’s a good idea to check folk museums, but I haven’t found one here that does that kind of thing yet. I imagine that’s because flax has never played a big part in our state’s history – it’s easy enough to find museums on gold, wool and forestry though!

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