Outliving the Reign of Kings: The Importance of Linen
Here at Zady, few things get us more excited than a great, sustainable fabric. Fabric is the building block of our wardrobes and an important measure of the quality, durability, and value of the clothing we buy. And in a world where the majority of our clothes are made from plastic, we feel it’s more important than ever to look closely at the materials we are wearing and to listen to the stories our fabrics tell. Today, let’s talk linen, making its Zady debut in our Essentials Collection with .03 The Linen Jersey Shirt.
What is linen?
Linen is a natural material woven from the fibers of the flax plant. Flax belongs to the family of bast fibers, which also includes hemp and jute, among others. Bast fibers are obtained from the inner bark, or phloem, in the stalk of certain plants. The majority of the world’s flax is grown in Europe, although production also takes place in China and India. The highest quality linen is generally thought to originate from the Normandy region in France and Belgium, where the climatic conditions are ideally suited for flax to grow. That’s why we made sure our linen jersey shirt is exclusively made from linen grown in Normandy.
A brief history
Linen is one of the world’s oldest textiles. Archaeologists who discovered the oldest piece of cloth ever found, along the Tigris River in Turkey, concluded the fabric, which dated back to 7000 B.C., was most likely linen. Ancient Egyptians cultivated flax for the production of linen as early as 5500 B.C. Linen occupied a central place in Ancient Egyptian society, both for practical and ritualistic reasons. Owing to its white color and lightweight, durable construction, linen was considered pure, and used in ceremonies and practices, including mummification. As civilizations rose and fell, linen spread throughout present day Europe, including ancient Rome and Greece, and the Fertile Crescent.
In the 8th century, Charlemagne industrialized the production of linen in France, and the fabric thrived in Europe in the centuries thereafter. In the 17th century, day and night undergarments made of linen first began to appear. This layer of linen worn against the skin was referred to as ligne, which is the origin of the word lingerie. By the 19th century, as cotton production became mechanized, linen production, which was still done by hand, decreased.
“linen has outlived the reign of kings, it has survived the fall of nations, and while warriors have come and gone, the gentle handmaid of industry and skill remains with us still.”
Today, cotton is by far the dominant plant-based material we wear. In fact, linen accounts for a mere 1% of all textile consumption globally. Yet, when we think about the many ancient practices that are long gone, it is remarkable that linen has stood the test of time and remains a fabric worn today. In a history of linen written in 1864, Alex Johnston Warden writes of linen production,“ [linen] has outlived the reign of kings, it has survived the fall of nations, and while warriors have come and gone, the gentle handmaid of industry and skill remains with us still.”
Our love for linen, beyond its rich history, its perfect drape, and soft texture, stems from the fact that it is highly sustainable from an environmental perspective. As we think about feeding and clothing an expanding global population in a world of growing resource constraints, linen can play as important a role in the wardrobes of our future as it did in those of our past. Why do we love linen so much? Let us count the ways.
First, linen uses significantly fewer resources, including less water, energy, and chemical pesticides and fertilizers, than polyester and cotton, the two dominant materials in our clothing. As compared with the cotton plant, flax requires around 60% less water to grow. Flax is most-often grown in moist climates using rainwater alone. Cotton, on the other hand, grows in dry climates, where it requires intensive irrigation. In fact, over 70% of the world’s cotton is grown on irrigated land, with a majority of the world’s cotton is grown in areas experiencing water scarcity., With 750 million people around the world lacking access to safe drinking water, the water intensiveness of cotton amounts to a massive social and environmental challenge.
Linen uses significantly fewer resources.
In terms of energy usage, linen production requires only 8% of the energy needed to produce polyester, and 18% of the energy needed to produce cotton. While the flax plant is not immune to diseases and pests, it is significantly less vulnerable than cotton, so it does not require chemical pesticides and fertilizers to the same degree that cotton does. Even when chemicals are used, flax requires just a fifth of the pesticides and fertilizers required to grow chemical cotton.
Second, linen is a gentle crop in terms of its use of land and its impact on the soil. Flax plants grow best using traditional farming methods, including crop rotation, which is sustainable way of managing the land and ensuring high levels of soil nutrition over time. Flax can gown on a variety of soils, including on marginal land that is not suitable for food production. This reduces the competition between fiber production and food production for land. Because it does not require intensive irrigation, flax averts soil damage associated with irrigation, including soil salinity. Bast fibers have also been shown to rehabilitate polluted soils.
Finally, flax plants absorb carbon at a high rate. In general, bast crops absorb 1.8–2.1 tons of CO2 per ton of crop produced.
Buying your linen
The main environmental issue associated with linen involves wastewater emissions during the retting process. Retting is a procedure used to remove the flax fibers from the stalk, as part of the process of transforming flax into linen. There are two types of retting processes: water retting and dew retting (also known as field retting). In the water retting process, flax stalks are immersed in bodies of water such as rivers and ponds, and the nutrients from the decaying stalks are emitted into the water. With dew retting, the stalks are left in the field to rot naturally, in a process that is significantly less polluting. Of course, our linen jersey shirt is dew-retted in a process that is certified by the Club Masters of Linen certificate held by our spinning facility in Bergamo Italy.
If linen isn’t already hanging in your closet, it should be! We suggesting starting with our .03 The Linen Jersey Shirt, available as a limited edition to our Essentials Collection.
Originally published at zady.com on August 12, 2015.