Monday, 9 January 2017

Lots of Linen

Linen is a plant fibre that is derived from the stalk of Flax plants.  Flax is grown in moist and cool climates with the highest quality coming from France, Belgium , the Netherlands and Ireland.  Coarser fibres are grown in Eastern Europe, New Zealand and Australia.

The fibre itself is part of the main stalk structure and is called ‘Bast’, which sits just under the surface of the stalk.  The Bast is removed from the stalk by a process called ‘Retting’ or rotting, this natural process is when the plant breaks down and releases the Bast for us to weave.  The finest quality Linens are left in the fields after cutting to allow dew and sunlight to break down flax stalks over 4-6 weeks, lesser quality fibres will be processed using lukewarm water which can speed up the process to around 3-5 days, chemicals can produce them far quicker – however the chemical process of retting makes course and weaker fibres that have less durability than those that are produced using natural methods.

Once the retted fibres have been collected they are dried for 1-2 weeks and then beaten and to remove the ‘shiv’ which is used to make chipboard.  Then it is combed to remove short waist fibres leaving the longer staples that are between 30cm-50cm long, these are smooth and lustrous.  It is then spun, dyed and woven into cloth.  All this processing makes Linen a relatively expensive fabric to produce, far more so than Cotton.

For a comprehensive history of Linen production across the world take a look at the CraigAvon Historical Society page, it is quite technical too which is somewhat appealing to a cloth geek like me.  For a less intense guide to Linen and it’s production in Ireland there is a great page on the FergusonIrish Linen website, although I have not purchased cloth from this company so don’t know what they are like to buy from.

The characteristics of Linen cloth are;
  • Has good moisture absorbency and is comfortable to wear, especially in warm climates
  • Is strong when wet or dry
  • Resists moth damage.
However is also;
  • Creases easily, ironed-in creases are very difficult to remove
  • Wears in folds and creases
  • Shrinks
  • Yellows with age
  • Shines when pressed without a cloth
  • Seam slippage can be a problem if the garment is tight
  • Susceptible to mould and damage buy silverfish.
And for makers you need to be aware that;
  • Frays easily
  • Does not ease well
  • Has poor elasticity.
An Irish Linen tea towel I use exclusively for pressing work
Linen is really good for protecting other fabrics during pressing when you are sewing, or just ironing your clothes made with delicate fabrics as it is lint free, if you keep them pressed and neatly folded they will serve you well for this purpose for years.

These are printed Linen fabrics for use in soft furnishings
The cloth on the left is a vintage piece that is unbleached and printed, it was produced in the 1970s/80s, the one on the right is a modern curtain fabric and is 100% Irish Linen which I have used to make Aprons and Fluffin Bags.

Natural coloured Linen Scrim
These two samples are naturally dyed, loosely woven fabrics that were used in the designs I made for Gracie Burnett when I worked for her.  This kind of Linen cloth is not the easiest to sew with as the loose weave suffers a lot with seam slippage and is not easy to launder.

Heavy Linen Suiting and Silk Linen Suiting
These two fabrics are very interesting, the brown Herringbone weave on the left is very crisp to sew with and frays like a mad thing; when sewing with this cloth I had to Overlock it immediately after cutting and before sewing with it because it practically unravelled otherwise – this made sharp corners practically impossible!  On the right is a Silk/Linen mix, this is a delight to sew with, it retains much of the strength of Linen and embraces the softness of Silk, the combination of these two fibres has produced a fabric that is less prone to creasing and is very cool for warm climates – I’ve made a few suits for my globe-trotting clients.  This cloth is available from Bennett Silks.

Some of the best Linen outlets are Ulster Linen, which I have not bought from myself although the website looks great, Ada & Ina which sell beautiful Linens for apparel and home furnishings in a wide range of weights and colours, although most of them are soft or neutral shades.  One of the suppliers Gracie used to use for naturally dyed Linen cloth is John EnglandIrish Linen
who also have a very wide range of colours and weights and their fabrics are of a beautiful quality.

Here are a few projects that I have made with Linen cloth over the years, it is pretty hard wearing and versatile, but if you are just starting out learning to sew I would develop your basic skills before tackling Linen.

A baby bag for a special pair of twins

Inside the bag
I made this bag for a relative who was having twins, a boy and a girl, and wanted a single baby bag that would accommodate all the paraphernalia for them both rather than having to lug around two bags.  It has a changing mat that rolls up and is stowed away in a zipped opening in the base.  The inside has been made using printed Linen curtain fabric and there are pockets for 2 bottles, 2 sets of nappies, 2x change of clothes and 2x favourite toys.  As far as I know it is still in use after several years – although the contents of the pockets have changed a bit!!

This is a prototype jacket made a number of years ago
It has been made with two different colours and weights of Linen, the frills are a little finer than the crisp blue Linen of the main jacket.

There are lots of contrasts in this jacket
This one has been made with two-tone, plain weave Linen, which is all naturally coloured, for the main body of the jacket.  The Linen holds the shape of the collar really well without piping because of the crisp quality of the cloth and makes it look really smart in my opinion.  All the darker panels have been made with Wool which is matt against the slightly lustrous Linen.

A skirt I found in a charity shop and fell in love with
I really love the way this lightweight Linen skirt swings as I walk in it, I rarely iron it either as it looks much more scruffy shortly afterward – I hang it up immediately after wearing or washing so that the creases drop out for the most part.  I have found this a good strategy for some (but not all) Linen garments, especially if they are bias cut or have a number of panels in the design.

Linen is a lovely cloth to work with and comes in a number of different weights;

  • Handkerchief Linen – sheer and lightweight
  • Lawn – loose weave a bit like muslin
  • Cambric
  • Linen sheeting – smooth & crisp
  • Dress Linens – medium weight 
  • Damask – smooth and lustrous used for top quality table linens
  • Crash – coarse slub Linens
  • Brown Holland – heavyweight

For those of you who like the look of Linen but don’t want the hassle of all the creases, there is a relatively new medium weight cloth made with plain woven Cotton/Polyester and is called Linen Look.  It is easy to sew with and washes brilliantly, there are lots of different printed patterns to choose from in places like Fabric Land, Hanson’s and many other stockists.

I hope you experiment with Linen fabrics in some of your projects, it is very robust for some things and I find that off-cuts make really good interfacings for tailoring.

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