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What Is Linen? Everything You Need to Know About Using and Caring for Linen

Written by MasterClass

May 17, 2019 • 3 min read

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Known for everything from summer clothing to absorbent dish towels, linen is a versatile, natural fabric that is soft and cool to the touch. Linen is one of the oldest-known natural fibers, and is considered a high-end, elegant, and durable fabric.


What Is Linen?

Linen is a strong, lightweight fabric made from the flax plant. The word linen comes from the latin name for flax, linum usitatissimum. The word “linen” is related to the word “line” because the fabric threads are woven in a straight line.

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What Is the History of Linen?

Use of linen dates back to ancient Mesopotamia. Some of the earliest uses for linen were as burial shrouds and wrappings for mummies—linen fabric has been found intact in tombs today, a testament to its durability. The ancient Egyptians were the first to mass-produce linen, where the textile was traded as currency among the wealthier Egyptians.

Linen is so ingrained in human cultures that there are references to linen in the Bible—the Old Testament proclaims that lay people are not to mix linen and wool, while the New Testament refers to angels who wear linen.

Where Is Linen Made?

France and Belgium are considered the best environments for flax plants to grow, though the plant is grown in other countries, like China, Canada, Italy, and Tunisia. The plants are exported around the world to be turned into linen fabric.

European weaving mills, especially those in Italy, produce the highest quality linen. European linen is known for being both durable and soft. Like many other fabrics, the bulk of linen production has shifted from Europe to Asia, particularly China, in recent years. China is the leading exporter of linen and the world’s largest linen factory is in Harbin.

How Is Linen Made?

While linen is often compared to cotton, the production process for linen is more time consuming and expensive as flax fibers are difficult to weave. Some parts of the linen production process is now done by machine, much is still done by hand.

  1. Flax plants are pulled from the ground, rather than cut, to maintain the length of the fibers.
  2. The plants are then left in the field to decompose a little, which makes it easier to separate the fibers of the flax plant.
  3. The extracted fibers are stored inside for a few months to soften further.
  4. Once softened, the flax fibers are combed to get rid of excess dirt and debris and to separate the short and long fibers.
  5. The long fibers are twisted and then spun while wet to make the yarn softer. These longer fibers are used in items like bed sheets and clothes.
  6. The short linen fibers are twisted together dry, which makes for a much sturdier version of linen. These shorter fibers are used for things like upholstery or as thread for sewing tough fabrics like leather.

6 Benefits to Using and Wearing Linen

Linen is a bit of a wonder fabric, able to be used for many different purposes.

  1. Absorbent. Linen holds water incredibly well, hence why it is a popular material for towels and sheets.
  2. Breathable. The fabric is very light and allows air through it easily, making it an ideal fabric for clothing during the summer months.
  3. Not elastic. Linen does not have much stretch, though it does hold its shape very well and will not change size over multiple wears and washes.
  4. Soft. Linen is very soft and smooth, and it even becomes softer the more often it is washed.
  5. Environmentally friendly. Linen is generally considered an eco-conscious fiber because it doesn’t take as much water and chemicals to produce as other fabrics.
  6. Hypo-allergenic. Linen fabric is naturally hypoallergenic.

There are a few downsides to consider about linen:

  • Wrinkles easily. While linen is light and holds its shape well, it wrinkles extremely easily.
  • Expensive. Since the production process is lengthy and portions are still done by hand, linen is often expensive.

Fabric Care Guide: How to Care for Linen

While linen is already soft and absorbent, with proper care, it becomes more so after each wash.

  • Washing. Linen does not need to be dry cleaned, and you can wash it by hand or in the washing machine.
  • Drying. If you opt to put it in the dryer, make sure to use a low heat. You should take it out of the dryer while it is still slightly damp to avoid wrinkles and stiffness, and hang it to dry.
  • Ironing. Should you need to iron a linen item, use high heat and some steam.

Learn more about fabrics and fashion design in Marc Jacobs’s MasterClass.