Linen is a yarn or fabric made from the cultivated flax plant, named Linum usitatissimum. This domesticated species is believed to have been developed during cultivation. It is a cellulosic plant fibre, or bast fibre, and it forms the fibrous bundles in the inner bark of the stems of the plant. The plant is an annual that grows to a height of about a metre and the fibres run the entire length of the stem and help hold it upright.
The fibre strands are normally released from the cellular and woody stem tissue by a process known as retting (controlled rotting). In Ireland this was traditionally done in water, rivers, ponds or retting dams.
Flax was grown in Ireland for many years before advanced agricultural methods and more suitable climate led to the concentration of quality flax cultivation in northern Europe (mainly northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands). Since the 1950’s the flax fibre for Irish Linen yarn has been, almost exclusively, imported from France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The linen manufacturing process is complicated and requires great skill at each stage of production. There are many processes involved in turning flax to fabric, which are summarised here as follows:
Linen is a natural fabric produced from fibres of the flax plant. The plant is sown in April, produces delicate blue flowers in June and is harvested in August. After pulling, the crop is laid out in the fields to ret, a process where the woody bark of the plant is naturally rotted so that the fibres come loose from the main stem. The seeds are removed and used for linseed oil or cattle cake and a process called scutching removes the bark. It is used for chipboard. No part of the flax plant is wasted.
Treating Flax Fibre & Spinning into Linen Yarn
The fibres are hackled (combed), to separate the long line and short tow fibres. The line fibres are generally drafted and doubled, and then lightly twisted before undergoing a wet spinning process. This produces strong, fine yarn. The short tow fibres are carded and drafted and then spun using a dry spinning method. Dry-spun yarns have a heavier count and are used for furnishing fabrics, heavy apparel and household textiles and knitwear.
Weaving Linen Yarn into Linen Fabric
Weaving is an ancient craft which has been revolutionised by technology. The latest Computer Aided Design systems and dedicated sampling machinery ensure that new designs are turned around with utmost efficiency. High-speed, computer controlled looms are operated under the watchful eye of an experienced weaver giving the industry an ideal mix of automation and skill. Irish linen weavers produce a vast range of fabrics – all weights of apparel fabrics from fine cambric’s to heavy suiting, damasks, furnishing fabrics and towels, both for the kitchen and the bathroom.
Finishing Linen to Create Texture of Purpose
Fabric finishing describes treatments, which occur after weaving to make the fabric suit customer requirements. These include bleaching, dyeing, coating, bonding, printing, texturising and calandering to name a few. These treatments can change the nature, feel, performance, look and texture of a fabric. Finishing linen is a complicated process, and new techniques are continually being developed to give the final fabric new properties and handles. Different finishing treatments can produce the crisp elegance of a fine damask tablecloth or the cool comfort of linen sheets and meet the demands of the fashion industry for new textures and performance. Recent developments in finishing include softwash and aero finishes for a relaxed look and easy care finishes which cut down linen’s creasability and allow the fabric to be fully washable and tumble-dry friendly.
Linen is the oldest fabric known to man – it even pre-dates the invention of the wheel. When Pre-Historic man decided that fur and skins were no longer the height of fashion, he turned to the fibres of the flax plant to create the first ever fabric. However, it was probably the Egyptians who first organised the industrial production of linen, recognising it as a noble fabric – early production methods are shown on ancient hieroglyphics across Egypt. Linen became a luxury worn by royal households and other aristocracy in both life and death – around 1000 metres of fine linen would have been wrapped around Egyptian kings as part of the mummifying process.
Linen probably came to Ireland in early Christian times, and St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, is said to be buried in a shroud of Irish Linen. The production of Irish Linen continued through the Middle Ages, but it was not until the 17th Century that the industry started to develop in any structured way, initially under the guidance of the Earl of Stafford and the Duke of Ormonde. In the late 17th Century, the Huguenots, who had recently fled from France to Ireland, added their expert textile skills to the already well-established Irish Linen industry, and the fame and reputation of Irish Linen flourished. The industry was concentrated in the north of Ireland, particularly in the area of land between the two great rivers of the north, the Bann and the Lagan. This area is known today as The Linen Homelands.
Linen was the focus for the Industrial Revolution in the north of Ireland, with the Province’s engineering, trade and infrastructure developed around the requirements of the industry. In the 20th Century, linen played a vital role in both World Wars. Rope, net, twine, hosepipes, sailcloth, canvas, blackout sheets, tents and aeroplane wing sealants were all made from Irish Linen. After World War Two, synthetic fibres replaced linen in many of these heavy industrial products. However, despite the interest in man-made consumer fabrics such as nylon and polyester in the ’60’s and ’70’s and the new microfibres of the ’90’s, Irish Linen is a truly contemporary fabric. It can be blended with the man-mades such as Tencel and Lycra, finished to give it a fresh feel and improve wash and care performance or kept in its purest white or natural colour and form. The Irish Linen industry is proud of rich heritage, and never loses sight of the craftsmanship, which has been developed over generations.