Linen: Is it sustainable?
When we say linen, you probably think of light summer shirts and floaty trousers. You may have even heard it being cited as a ‘sustainable fabric’. But how much do you really know about it? Below I will explore where linen comes from, how it’s made and it’s sustainability credentials.
Linen is actually one of the oldest fibres known, dating back to 8000BC. Interestingly, the Egyptians used it as currency, and made it a key part of the mummifying process, showing its high perceived value.
For a long time it was one of the major commodities in textiles, with Belfast being a world-leader in its production during the Victorian era. However, it has now been over taken by cotton and synthetic fibres, accounting for just 1% of global textiles production.
How Linen is made?
Linen is a type bast fibre which comes from the blue-flowered flax (others are hemp and nettle), which basically means it’s a fibrous material which comes from a plant. Its perfect conditions are moderate to cool, which is why much of it is grown in Western Europe (think France and Belgium). The fibres are located in the inner bark layer, which means they need to be separated from the outer bark and core before it can be transformed into a yarn, ready to be spun into fabric.
The naturally hollow fibres of the flax plant mean it is highly water absorbent and breathable. Makes sense that it’s used so often in summer clothes right?
Okay, so once the flax has been harvested, the process of separating the long fibre, from the rest of the plant, it called ‘retting’. This involves laying the cut plant in water of some kind, either in the dew in the field (dew-retting), or in a shallow river or lake (water-retting). However, water retting can result in pollutants from agro-chemicals entering into water ways.
This process can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, which is where ‘chemical retting’ comes in. This is a much faster process, which requires the plant to be soaked in an acidic solution, pressurised and boiled - which is of course less sustainable than the traditional method.
After the retting, the plants are then squashed and crushed between rollers, to remove the outer, woody part. What remains in the soft fibre, which can now be made into fabric.
The labour intensive nature, and level of care needed to extract the linen fibre, much of which is still done by hand, is what makes it such a premium product.
Why linen is sustainable?
Okay, so lets get into the sustainability of linen…
Linen is a resilient fibre, meaning it can grow in poor soil conditions, which are unsuitable for food production. It can be cultivated and processed without chemicals, although you should bare in mind some is produced using chemical processing and due to it’s natural colour, getting it white requires a lot of bleaching.
A report from the The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation found it requires 13 time less pesticides than potatoes. Production of linen is water and energy efficient, with 80% of the consumption over a linen products life cycle, coming from the washing and ironing (European Confederation of Linen and Hemp, 2008). Furthermore, every part of the flax plant is useful: not only does it produce linen fabric, but other products such as Linseed Oil, reducing the amount of waste created.
It’s Carbon Positive and Benefits Eco-Systems
It has a positive carbon impact, it is estimate that one hector can retain 3.7 tonnes of CO2. Every year the flax grown in Europe captures 250,000 tonnes of CO2, which is the equivalent of driving a Renault Clio around the world 62,000 times!
It even has a positive effect on eco-systems diversity, acording to findings from the Advisory Commission Report to the European Parliament, as it allows for an ‘environmental pause’.
It’s Water Efficient
Typical rainfall is enough to irrigate the crop, in comparisons to cotton which is incredibly water intensive. A CELC report drew comparison stating a linen shirt uses 6.4 litres of water compared with 26 litres for a cotton shirt, across the product lifecycle.
It lasts a long time
Linen gets better with time - The fibre becomes softer and stronger, meaning they will last longer, reducing the demand for new resources and products.
It’s recyclable and biodegradable
Because it’s a natural fibre linen can naturally breakdown at the end of the products life, meaning it won’t be adding to landfill. It can also be recycled to produce things such as linen paper.
Overall it’s pretty clear that linen is a good option when it comes to more sustainable fibres. The Made-By Environmental Benchmark for Fibres rates conventional flax as Class C and organic flax as Class A.
As with all things, it has its limitations, the main one being the higher price tag as a result of the labour intensive nature of its making, but it will last for a long time, so we feel it’s worth the investment!
You can check out our new organic linen cushion here!
1. Masters of Linen (2017) European Linen and Hemp Figures
2. Bio Intelligence Services (2008) Eco-profile of a linen shirt, report for European Confederation of Linen and Hemp (CELC)