Linen is a natural fiber used for textiles made from a renewable resource: the flax plant. It's the most expensive and sustainable woven fabric used for clothing in the world. Linen clothing is well-known to be luxurious and exceptionally cool in hot weather.
The natural color of undyed linen is pale yellowish-gray. The color of natural linen is massively affected by the farming and manufacturing processes used to obtain fibers from flax plants.
Linen fabric is sold at a higher price than other natural fibers such as cotton and hemp because it's difficult to manufacture and less readily available. It represents less than 1% of all textile fibers consumed worldwide.
Natural linen and flax fabric colors
Straw is an agricultural by-product consisting of the dry stalks of the flax plant. Dressing the flax is the process of removing the straw from the fibers. The color of unspun dressed flax is pale yellowish-gray, the color of straw.
Perfect white isn't the natural color of linen. Depending on the farming and processing conditions of the flax plant, the color of natural linen can vary between:
Linen is a natural material that can be dyed very easily. Most of the linen textiles are bought pure white or in a wide range of colors. Linen can take a variety of bright colors such as:
Most dyes used in the textile and apparel industry are toxic. They have a very harmful impact on the environment. Buy linen in its natural form whenever you can. Or choose a natural organic dyeing process supported by certifications.
Retting is a manufacturing process used in the fabrication of linen fabric. Micro-organisms and moisture dissolve much of the cellular tissues of flax plants to facilitate the separation of the fiber from the stem.
Retting is one of the main factors that determine the color of natural linen.
The most widely practiced method of retting is water. Bundles of stalks are submerged in stagnant or slow-moving waters. The large majority of the dirt and coloring matter is removed by the water. The resulting color is very pale and yellowish, close to ecru.
In areas with limiter water resources, dew retting is used over two to three weeks to separate fibers with the action of sun, air, and dew. The resulting color is darker, close to grey.
When putting an outfit together, make sure to match warm tones together, and cool tones together.
If you are new to color matching, start with one color and own it. You can go monochromatic with your outfit! Oftentimes, less is more. Keep it simple for a timeless and fashionable look. Try out a minimalist style. Once you're ready to branch out more, try tone variations.
If you are new to this kind of style, follow my ultimate guide on the minimalist fashion trend.
Natural flax fabric production
Linen is a very old fabric that has been used for a very long time (over 6,000 years).
Flax plants only live for one growing season and are harvested annually. They are ready to be harvested in about a hundred days after seed-planting.
Today, Europe produces more than 85% of the world's production of flax fibers.
The largest producer of flax fiber and tow worldwide is France with about 660,000 tons produced in 2018, followed by Belgium, Belarus, and Russia, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The annual production of flax increased to more than 868,000 tons globally in 2018, which is much less than cotton (30,3 million tons) or jute (3,63 million tons).
Flax fiber uses as a fabric
Natural fibers are extracted from the flax plant, spun into yarn, then woven into the linen fabric for clothing.
Natural linen is often used in household articles as well, such as pillows, curtains, tablecloths, bath towels, bedsheets, rugs, and wall coverings.
Linen clothing has excellent properties for clothes. It's:
- very absorbent,
The environmental impact of linen fabric
Linen is one of the best environmentally friendly and socially responsible materials to make high-quality and luxurious clothing. It's a natural fiber, biodegradable, and recyclable.
The flax plant requires very little water to grow unless the weather is particularly warm and dry. The production of a linen shirt requires 6.4 liters of water compared to 26 liters for a cotton shirt, according to the analysis by Bio Intelligence Service (2008).
And the Higg Materials Sustainability Index gives linen a water scarcity score of 3.3 much lower than 50.4 for cotton.
Only buy Fair Trade and certified organic linen as it confirms the material quality and its eco-friendliness. Look for organic certifications from:
- the U.S. Department of Agriculture,
- the E.U. Organic Certification Agency,
- or the Global Organic Textile Standard.
Read up my guide on the best certification standards for textiles to learn more about other certifications for sustainable clothing.
The European Confederation of Flax and Hemp (CELC) is also an organization worth mentioning.
It is the only European agro-industrial organization federating all the stages of production and transformation for linen & hemp.
Created in 1951, it is the privileged spokesperson for 10 000 European companies and oversees the fiber’s development from plant to finished product.
Linen fabric is much more environmentally friendly and luxurious than other natural plant-based fibers such as cotton.
Unfortunately, linen remains a rare textile in the fashion industry. Its manufacturing is very costly which makes it inaccessible to most people.
But since sustainability is gaining popularity in the fashion industry, linen will also have a key role to play as a very eco-friendly fabric.
Many fashion designers and brands are now opting for organic fibers such as linen for their new collections.
"Just as farm-to-table is changing the way we think about our food and where it comes from, farm-to-closet will change the way we think about clothing. Because clothes are an agricultural act. It's perhaps an odd way to think about garments, but true when they're made from natural fibers. That's why we're driven to find the best ingredients with the least possible impact. And why this season our key ingredient is organic linen."
- Eileen Fisher, an American clothing designer
Do you already have favorite linen pieces in your wardrobe?
About the Author: Alex Assoune
Alex Assoune (MS) is a global health and environmental advocate. He founded Panaprium to inspire others with conscious living, ethical, and sustainable fashion. Alex has worked in many countries to address social and environmental issues. He speaks three languages and holds two Master of Science degrees in Engineering from SIGMA and IFPEN schools.