If you love beautiful fabrics the way that I do, chances are you’ve cast some longing looks at luscious linen sheets, tablecloths, and accessories. I especially love older French linen bed sheets, many of which have beautifully done white work, embroideries, and monogramming. Alas, the prices can be daunting, with French linen sheets running between $300-$600 per sheet, depending upon condition. Linen is one of those marvelous fabrics that improves with age, getting softer and softer. With proper care, linen fabric lasts a very long time. But what exactly is linen?

      Characteristics of Linen

      Linen is made from the fibers of the flax pant and is expensive to manufacture. Flax can be temperamental in its growth patterns, and producing quality linen is very labor intensive since flax is hand harvested. Top quality flax is grown in Western Europe with the highest quality fabrics coming from Ireland, Belgium, and Italy.

      There are two types of flax used to manufacture linen fabric: short fiber and long fiber. Short fiber flax produces a coarse linen while long fiber flax produces a much finer linen. The quality of linen is usually judged by the ‘slubs’ that appear in the finished fabric. The more slubs the lower the grade.

      A Brief History of Linen

      Linen fabrics have been produced since at least 6000 BC and likely earlier. Linen fabric has been found in historical sites all over the world. In ancient Egypt and the middle east, bodies were often wrapped in linen strips in preparation for burial. (The mummy of Ramses II, who died 3000 years ago was found with its linen wrapping still in a pristine state.) In fact, linen was so prized that it was at times used in ancient Egypt as currency. Even today linen is used in currency, since the USA and other countries print money on paper which is 25% linen.

      Linen comes in a variety of natural shades including beige, ecru, cream, and gray. White linen is produced by heavy bleaching of the fibers.

      Linen has natural properties that have made it a favorite across the centuries especially in very hot climates. It is highly absorbent, doesn’t shrink much, resists stains, and has a natural propensity to wick away perspiration, able to absorb a significant amount without feeling damp. It’s also among the strongest of plant fibers, with 2-3 times the strength of cotton. Linen has a smooth surface making it lint free. Linen is also naturally moth and bug resistant. The stiffness of linen prevents it from clinging to the skin, and it’s quick drying time makes for greater comfort.

      Linen is actually easy to care for and will take a lot of abuse, but for long life there are precautions to follow: (1) avoid folding in the same place to prevent damage to the fibers. (2) While linen can be machine washed or dry cleaned, never tumble dry it. Instead, line dry or hang dry. (3) Iron while damp, although some wrinkles are part of linen’s charm. Never iron dry linen. (4) Never store in a plastic bag. (5) Rinse thoroughly after washing to remove all soap.

      By Florence Dove Google

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