Translated with the help of Lucie Battaglia. Thank you Lucie!
Linen is a fabric made with fiber extracted from the flax plant. The oldest flax fiber used by humans goes back 36,000 years. There are about 200 flax species worldwide, most of which are wild. The peoples of Central Asia, Egypt, Greece and Gaul used flax fiber and have fostered the development of a flax species known as “usitatissimum.” Historically, linen was one of the most popular textile fibers until the late seventeenth century. Thereafter, cotton was introduced and gradually replaced linen. Linen now represents only 0.3% of all textiles produced worldwide, but its ecological value and its noble and natural character make it a sought-after fiber.
If you own linen clothes, chances are that the flax plant it came from has been harvested in France. According to statistics from 2012, France is the largest producer of flax fiber for textiles, supplying 96,000 tonnes of scutched flax per year. This country is far ahead of Belgium, who comes in second with 17,000 tonnes / year. In fact, France produces almost twice as much scutched flax than the sum of all the other countries combined.
Interestingly, Canada is the largest producer of flaxseed, with 423,000 tonnes / year. This represents 22% of world production. Flax for seed, however, requires a different crop variety from the one used for fiber.
The flax plant has a single stem that grows up to a metre tall. On this rod, there are 80 to 100 single leaves. It bears many flowers ranging in color from pure blue to a pinkish white. Each flower produces a fruit: a pod with five cells, each containing two seeds separated by a partial ciliate septum. The pods have a slightly pointed tip.
Seeds are smooth, flat, oblong, small and light (a thousand grains weigh between 4 and 7 grams) and brown when ripe. Their tip has a slightly curved beak.
Varieties are mainly distinguished through the characteristics of flowers and capsules (color of the petals, stamens and styles, specks on the sepals, ciliation of pod septum, etc.).
– – – 1. Harvesting Flax – – –
Flax is important in crop rotation. It can have beneficial effects on other crops by structuring land and reducing harm from pests and diseases. Flax is a very complementary break crop for winter grains.
The plants take about 120 days to grow and mature, during which stems reach their maximum height (about 1 m).
Pulling flax is the first stage of the harvest and occurs when the flax plants are mature. The term “pulling” refers to a harvest done without mowing, in order not to lose the fibers in the lower part of the stems.
After pulling, flax straws are arranged in the field in windrows to undergo retting. This step largely determines the quality of flax. It involves action of soil microorganisms (fungi, bacteria) on the stems. With good moisture (dew, rain) and mild temperatures (> 10 ° C), those microorganisms secrete enzymes that weaken the tissues surrounding the fiber bundles. The resulting loss of tissue cohesion helps with mechanical extraction of the fibers. The only problem is that this step is experimental and highly depends on the climate. The microbiological attack on the straw must be sufficient to weaken it, but not damage the fibers.
Retting results in a color change—straws take on a brown-to- grayish colour. If optimal results are obtained, the stems will have a homogeneous color and fibers will be easily extractable.
The plants are then rolled into round bales (a bit like typical hay bales), dried off completely, and stored. Under the right conditions, they can be stored for many years. Later, they undergo the scotching process.
– – – 2. Fiber Extraction (Scutching) – – –
Unlike the bamboo or eucalyptus fibers, flax fiber is processed through mechanical extraction. This means that the fiber is already present; it is only necessary to break the rod to extract the fiber. This process is called “scutching” and requires specific machinery.
During scutching, flax seeds are recovered, and then the stem is beaten to remove the wood. The wood pieces collected at the end are called “anas.” The recovered fibers are separated into long and short fibers (the “tow”).
The “long” extracted fibers are what make up scutched flax and correspond to the noble fiber. The farmer can expect the best performance, the best qualities and the best valuation out of those.
The short fibers, “anas”, seeds, and dust are considered by-products. Their valuations advantageously complement those of the long fibers.
The scutched flax is packed in round bales weighing approximately 100 kg. These long fibers represent 20 to 25% of the straw mass. One hectare of flax yields, on average, between 1200 and 1700 kg of scutched flax.
The images below show the different stages and equipment necessary for scutching.
– – – 3. Combing and Spinning – – –
For textile use, scutched flax fibers must be converted into yarn. This step is referred to as spinning. Before any spinning, fibers are combed in order to make them parallel and shape them in the form of soft and shiny ribbons ready to be spun.
Due to their little elasticity, low average length and very wide dispersion of their lengths and diameters, flax fibers do not respond well to conventional spinning processes used for cotton. This is why “flax spinning” has been designed with specific thread-spinning techniques, whether wet, dry, or otherwise depending on blending circuits.
The materials used come in two forms: scutched flax and tow. These forms use different preparation circuits to achieve one of three conventional modes of “linen spinning.”
1. Wet spinning
This process involves more long fibers than short fibers. The ribbons from the combing output are laminated and rendered as homogeneous as possible in linear density and fiber composition. This is performed repeatedly, and the final tape undergoes a slight twist. The strand thus obtained is then stretched and undergoes a twist so that the yarn resists the spinning process. What’s particular about this type of spinning? The strands are immersed in water at 60 °C before stretching to “soften” pectic cements which bind the individual fibers together, thus allowing better dissociation and some slippage. Therefore, the resulting yarn is fine, smooth, shiny, strong and regular; it is intended for the manufacture of high-quality fabrics.
Wet spinning uses bonded fibers, more or less pre-separated. The material-dividing process happens gradually through the water treatment of strands and through mechanical final stretching.
Like all threads, linen threads are characterized by their metric number. This corresponds to the number of meters for 1 gram of thread or the number of kilometres per 1 kilogram of thread. The higher the value, the thinner the thread is. The metric number of flax can reach 80 (= 80 m of thread weigh 1 g).
2. Dry spinning
This process resembles the spinning of yarn—it uses similar elements, with specific adaptations. It is used for cable glands, but also for cracked scotched flax (roughly stretched).
In dry spinning, the material (the tape) is stretched and spun without immersion in water. In fact, it does not lead up to the final division of strands into elementary fibers. The end products are larger and rougher than those obtained wet; they are used in the manufacture of technical fabrics.
Some circuits are designed to produce a yarn made of linen blended with other natural (cotton, wool, silk, etc.), artificial (viscose) or synthetic (polyester, polyamide, acrylic, etc.) fibers. In this case, the method used is the same as for spinning cotton or short fibers. The process starts with 80-centimetre strands of fibers (scutched flax) or 20-centimetre strands (tow), and involves splitting and cutting fibers in consistent lengths similar to those of cotton fibers (25-35 mm). The refining process allows mixture with other fibers. The loose fibers are then parallelized by carding, which creates a ribbon. Finally, the material is spun after successive doubling and stretching. The resulting threads create a fabric with a distinctive appearance, touch, and drape.
– – – 4. Textiles – – –
Although flax fibers are only used for 0.3% of the world’s textile production, this sector remains by far their main outlet, using 95% of long fibers and 60% of short fibers.
Of all countries, the United States consume the most linen (37%). They are followed by the European Union (32%), where Italy makes up half of this figure. Japan ranks immediately behind (7%). But the future is growing among upper and middle classes of emerging countries, Russia, India, China, and Brazil.
Clothing accounts for about 60% of textile outlets for flax fibers. Home furnishing accounts for 30%, divided equally between bed linens, tablecloths and upholstery. Technical textiles (painting canvases, hoses, etc.) and industrial-use materials (sheets, etc.) make up the remaining 10%.
Featuring an unparalleled strength and moisture absorption capacity, linen provides a feeling of well-being to those who wear it. Comparable with cashmere or wool, it is soft and warm for winter. Mixed with silk, it becomes precious and wearable at night. Paired with viscose or polyamide, it loses its tendency to wrinkle and can be worn for many occasions. Another asset of linen is its durability. After 50 washes, a cotton shirt gets damaged and loses its shape; it takes more than double the washings to see the same results in flax. Furthermore, linen takes on colors impressively, which is the very reason for its original popularity in apparel and in home furnishing. Linen is a true symbol of quality and nobility.
After several years of investment in R & D, European spinners have improved the yarn to facilitate knitting and subsequently create a new generation of extra fine yarns. Wrinkle-free flax came into existence and offers new opportunities for development.
– – – 5. Garment Manufacturing – – –
The manufacture of linen clothing is often outsourced to Thailand or Nepal to take advantage of inexpensive labor. This is not the case for Respecterre’s linen clothes, which are cut and assembled in Respecterre’s shop in Ham-Nord, near Victoriaville, QC, Canada.
Written by Ugo Dutil :
I grew up in the ecovillage Cite Ecologique. I like this way of life that values human relationships, sustainable development and personal growth. I’ve been working with Respecterre since 2013. Minimalism, #slowfashion and moving towards sustainability, especially in textiles, fascinate me.