Linen may not be used much in quilting, but I’m sure that we have all used in clothes making or for table cloths and napkins. It is great for clothes particularly in warm climates because it feels so cool and fesh against the skin.
Linen is made using the fibres of the flat plant. The fibres are longer than most other natural fibres (like cotton) used in fabrics. The name itself comes from the Greek work ‘linon’ for the flax plant and I was fascinated to find that this is also where the English work ‘line’ comes from – a linen thread was used to define a straight line. In addition the word ‘lining’ came into being because linene was usually used for lining jackets and dresses.
I would have expected cotton fabric to have been the earliest fabric used, but there have been discoveries of dyed linen fabric found in Swiss lake dwellings which date back to 8,000 BC. Egyptian mummies were wrapped in linen fabric because it was seen as a sign of wealth, so linen is certainly one of the oldest types of fabric to be made.
Linen fabric is smooth and becomes softer the more often it is washed. Interestingly, it is one of very few fabrics that are stronger when wet than when dry. It does not work well when constantly creased on a sharp line such as a hem because that tends to break the linene fibres. The reason that it wrinkles fairly easily is because there is not much elasticity in the fibres – they don’t spring back easily to their original state.
Lines fabric naturally comes in light colours such as ivory or grey and the very bright white that you see so often in napkins in restaurants is achieved by heavy bleaching. It resists dirt and stains which is obviously a great help and linen can be washed or dry cleaned.
The extraction of the linen fibres from the flax plant is quite expensive which restricts its use, but used as a blend with another fabric like cotton it could create a fabric that would have the cool, fresh feel of linen. This would make great clothing in warm weather – imagine denim jeans with the cool feel of linen.
The dress in the photo is made from a linen/silk blend and I can vouch for how comfortable it feels in any weather.
Over the centuries linen has been used in clothing, books, shields, curtains, embalming shrouds and it is even used in bank notes because of its durability and strength. A use that I would never have guessed is the use of linen in billiard cues because of its ability to absorb sweat from hands. Who would have thought that linen was such a versatile fabric.