Linen, the everyday fabric

Do you think of cruise ships, Roman holidays, or an island escape, when you think of linen? When did the humble weaved yarn – one of the most ancient fabrics become a luxury

Linen dates back to 5000 BC - while experts argue on if it is even older. It was used by royals and peasants alike and it was also one of the most geographically widespread fabric, grown on the banks of Nile, in European foothills, as well as on plains of America.

Its durability, made it perfect for the peasant toiling away in the sun all day to preserving mummies in ancient Egypt.

So ubiquitous was its usage, that fabrics used in the house, are called home ‘linen’ or laundry is referred to as ‘doing your linens’

When did linen’s perception change from being an everyday fabric to a luxurious or expensive fabric?

To unpack this, we need to look at 3 aspects:

  • Linen manufacturing 
  • Replacements
  • Change in consumption

We are sure you know flax seeds recently identified as an ancient superfood, – linen is made from the inner barks of the flax plant. Flax in Latin means “of many uses”.  After the seeds are harvested, the barks are used to make the linen fiber. The process of manufacturing linen is more time consuming than producing cotton for example, making it more expensive. However, it is important to note that the flax plant, is more attuned to growing in different topologies and needs far less water and pesticides to grow than cotton. Also unlike cotton, the flax plant produces food for humans, fodder for animals, as well as the fiber for clothes as a by product.

When the cotton gin was invented in 1793, cotton became cheaper than linen to produce.  However, the game completely changed with the advent of polyester a byproduct of the petroleum industry. Our perceptions of what is affordable clothing  completely changed. A meter of polyester costs 1USD – something which would be impossible to achieve, for natural fabrics such as linen

A change in consumption is probably the most important yet least talked about aspect that has contributed to changing perception of linen as an expensive fabric. Linen is costlier to produce than its alternatives, but is significantly better for you – extremely durable, becomes better with washing, great conductor of heat making it naturally heat resistant, anti-bacterial (bandages still use it), moisture wicking and hence anti-odor. However, with fashion cycles reducing, durability is not important anymore. Also trendiness counts for more than comfort and majority of consumers don’t ask what their clothes are made out of, but rather who has designed them. If you will wear your clothes less than 5 times a season and the average lifecycle of your clothes is 3 months, then by all accounts linen will be expensive for you.

We are at the precipice, of allowing linen to fade away into the background. A sustainable, biodegradable, extremely good for you fabric, will become a rarity, only for the true connoisseurs to enjoy, if we do not reclaim it. It was an everyday fabric for the every man and it can become that still – only if we move our perceptions a little, use our clothes for longer, increase the reusability of our clothes, decouple ourselves from the trend cycles.

We at Earthly are converts, once we started using natural fabrics, we haven’t been able to go back and our wardrobes are smaller but richer for it.