LINEN / FLAX
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LINEN / FLAX FIBRES
Flax is an annual plant, which means it only lives for one growing season. From seed-planting, it is ready to be harvested in about a hundred days. Unless the weather is particularly warm and dry, flax requires little watering or attention during this time. It grows to about three or four feet tall, with glossy bluish-green leaves and pale blue flowers, though on rare occasions, the flowers bloom red.
Flax is cultivated around the world not only for its fine, strong fibres, but also for its seeds, which are rich in nutrients such as dietary fibre and omega-3 fatty acids. Flax oil is also a popular drying oil amongst oil painters.
Description Linen is a bastfiber. Flax fibers vary in length from about 25 to 150 mm (1 to 6 in) and average 12-16 micrometers in diameter. There are two varieties: shorter tow fibers used for coarser fabrics and longer line fibers used for finer fabrics. Flax fibers can usually be identified by their “nodes” which add to the flexibility and texture of the fabric.
The cross-section of the linen fiber is made up of irregular polygonal shapes which contribute to the coarse texture of the fabric
TYPES OF FLAX
The linseed variety is grown primarily to extract the seed’s highly nutritious oil. This type is fairly short and produces many secondary branches, which increases seed yield.
The flax variety tends to grow taller, more slender, and with less branches. It is cultivated in order to extract the very long fibres from inside the wooden stem of the plant, which are then spun and woven into linen fabric. The taller the flax plant, the longer the fibre.
Linen yarn is spun from the long fibres found just behind the bark in the multi-layer stem of the flax plant (Linumusitatissimum). In order to retrieve the fibres from the plant, the woody stem and the inner pith (called pectin), which holds the fibres together in a clump, must be rotted away. The cellulose fibre from the stem is spinnable and is used in the production of linen thread, cordage, and twine. From linen thread or yarn, fine towellingand dress fabrics may be woven. Linen fabric is a popular choice for warm-weather clothing. It feels cool in the summer but appears crisp and fresh even in hot weather. Household linens truly made of linen become more supple and soft to the touch with use; thus, linen was once the bedsheet of choice.
While the flax plant is not difficult to grow, it flourishes best in cool, humid climates and within moist, well-ploughed soil. The process for separating the flax fibres from the plant’s woody stock is laborious and painstaking and must be done in an area where labour is plentiful and relatively inexpensive. It is remarkable that while there is some mechanization to parts of the fibre preparation, some fibre preparation is still done by hand as it has been for centuries. This may be due to the care that must be taken with the fragile flax fibres inside the woody stalk, which might be adversely affected by mechanized processing.
Flax remains under cultivation for linen fibre in a number of countries including Poland, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and the British Isles. However, the grade of fibre the plants yield in different parts of the world varies. Many believe that Belgium grows the finest-quality flax fibres in the world, with Scottish and Irish linen not far behind. There is no commercial production of linen fabric in any significant quantity in the United States except, perhaps, by individual hand spinners and hand weavers. Thus, the linen fabrics Americans use and wear are nearly all imported into the country from one of these flax-growing and weaving countries.
Flax has been cultivated for its remarkable fibre, linen, for at least five millennia. The spinning and weaving of linen is depicted on wall paintings of ancient Egypt. As early as 3,000 B.C. , the fibre was processed into fine white fabric (540 threads to the inch—finer than anything woven today) and wrapped around the mummies of the ancient Egyptian pharaohs.
All that is needed to turn flax fibre into linen, and then spin and weave the linen fibres into linen fabric is the cellulose flax fibre from the stem of the flax plant. The process for separating the fibres from the woody stalk can use either water or chemicals, but these are ultimately washed away and are not part of the finished material.
The manufacture of linen yarn requires no special design processes. All that has to be determined prior to manufacturing is the thickness of the yarn to be spun. That will depend on the grade of linen in production and the demands of the customer.
THE MANUFACTURING PROCESS (1. CULTIVATING)
It takes about 100 days from seed planting to harvesting of the flax plant. Flax cannot endure very hot weather; thus, in many countries, the planting of seed is figured from the date or time of year in which the flax must be harvested due to heat and the growers count back 100 days to determine a date for planting. In some areas of the world, flax is sown in winter because of heat in early spring. In commercial production, the land is ploughed in the spring then worked into a good seedbed by discing, harrowing, and rolling. Flax seeds must be shallowly planted. Seeds may be broadcast by hand, but the Once flax is harvested and the fiber removed from the stalks, a scotching machine removes the broken outer layer called shives.
Once flax is harvested and the fibre removed from the stalks, a scutching machine removes the broken outer layer called shives.
seed must be covered over with soil. Machines may also plant the seed in rows.
Flax plants are poor competitors with weeds. Weeds reduce fibre yields and increase the difficulty in harvesting the plant. Tillage of the soil reduces weeds as do herbicides. When the flax plants are just a few inches high, the area must be carefully weeded so as not to disturb the delicate sprouts. In three months, the plants are straight, slender stalks that may be 2-4 ft (61-122 cm) in height with small blue or white fibres. (Flax plants with blue flowers yield the finest linen fibres.)
Linen, a specially selected variety of the flax plant, grown for its long, unbranched stocks, is harvested 100 days after
It’s very important when harvesting flax for linen fiber to harvest at the right time. You don’t want to leave it in the field too long. You don’t want to wait until the seeds are completely ripe. This toughens the linen fiber in the stems and you will not get soft, fine linen fibers that are also strong. If the plants dry out in the field and turn brown, the fiber becomes brittle and there is a greater percentage of waste when the plants are processed for fiber.
How to know if your linen is ready to harvest
When linen flax is ready for harvesting, flowering has stopped. One or two flowers may be visible in the field but predominantly each stalk has only seed bolls visible. The plants are 2/3rds yellow and 1/3rd still green. The seed has formed in the seed bolls but it is still white or pale brown and immature, inside the boll. This is the optimal time for harvest. If the field was planted in a single day, the window of optimal harvest may be only a day or two. So be prepared to put aside other activities to get the harvest
How to harvest linen
Harvest on a dry day. If it’s raining, wait until the plants are dry before harvesting. Never harvest in the rain. You don’t want to walk on the wet
Harvest by pulling up handfuls of linen stalks by the roots. They come up easily if the ground is not compacted. Once the plants are pulled up, they are bundled into shooks that are the breadth of a hand and tied securely. The stalks themselves can be used to tie the bundle. I put two of the moister, yellow stalks together and use them to tie the stocks in bundles or shooks. The shooks are then stood upright in the field or under shelter if rain is expected. This allows the seed bolls to continue to mature while the plants turn yellow, and finish drying out. By standing them up, instead of piling them on top of each other, they will dry evenly, without molding.
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The seed will mature while the plants dry out. Once the seed is mature it can be rippled from the plants to feed to livestock or to save for planting in the following year. Plan to ripple the plants before storing them for the winter. Keep varmints out of your seeds as you may want to save your seed to plant for the following year – saving you money and ensuring
More about rippling linen flax in September, once the seeds of this year’s harvest are mature. Would you like a video of the rippling process and the equipment and set up that I use?
The quality of the finished linen product is often dependent upon growing conditions and harvesting techniques. To generate the longest possible fibers, flax is either hand-harvested by pulling up the entire plant or stalks are cut very close to the root. After harvesting, the plants are dried, and the seeds are removed through a mechanized process called “rippling” (threshing) and winnowing.
The fibers must then be loosened from the stalk. This is achieved through retting. This is a process which uses bacteria to decompose the pectin that binds the fibers together. Natural retting methods take place in tanks and pools, or directly in the fields. There are also chemical retting methods; these are
After retting, the stalks are ready for scutching, which takes place between August and December. Scutching removes the woody portion of the stalks by crushing them between two metal
After the fibers have been separated and processed, they are typically spun into yarns and woven or knit into linen textiles. These textiles can then be bleached, dyed, printed on, or finished with a number of treatments or coatings.
An alternate production method is known as “
Flax is ready to be harvested for its fibers when the stem begins to turn yellow and the seeds turn brown. On some farms
The stems of the flax plant are preferably pulled up with the root system somewhat intact, rather than cut at the base. This maximizes the quality of the fiber in several ways. First, the valuable fibers run the length of the stalk all the way into the roots, so pulling up the plant by the root increases the length of the fiber produced. This practice also prevents the plant sap from leaking out of the cut stalk, a process which dries out the fibers and ultimately results in
Although the agricultural industry has made great strides in mechanized farming, machine harvesting of flax is still unable to preserve the root system during harvest. For this reason, despite the extremely laborious process of manual harvesting, the highest quality linens are still made from flax plants that were pulled out of the earth by hand. Fabric made from hand-harvested flax is finer, more supple, and more highly prized than fabric made from flax that is machine-harvested.
Traditional Flax Processing.From Fibers and Seeds to Linen.
After harvest, flax stalks are allowed to dry in open air for several weeks before they undergo
Flax fibers are considered
What’s in a Flax Fibre? You may remember from your Biology 101 class that the phloem is one of the two vascular structures inside of plants that carry nutrients throughout the organism (the other is the
Separating Out the Flax Fiber
The xylem and phloem of plants are bundled together by calcium ions and a sticky protein called pectin, which must be broken down in order to separate the valuable
Retting (a quick biology lesson from DeckTowel). Let’s get technical.
Cross section of a
The image to the right is a
How do these micro-organisms break down those sticky pectins? A man named Sergei Winogradsky figured out the answer to this question back in the 1890s. Winogradsky, a microbiologist and soil ecologist, is actually quite famous for this answer – his discovery of chemosynthesis – a process wherein autotrophs (organisms that make their own food) absorb carbon and inorganic nutrients from their surrounding environments in order to mediate the chemical reactions with which they create their own energy.
Prior to this discovery, scientists believed that all autotrophs were dependent upon sunlight for energy production (remember photosynthesis?). But Winogradsky found a little bacterium living in the root nodules of legume plants that changed everything. He identified it as Clostridium
He found that C.
Scientists have since isolated more than 22 different kinds of autotrophic, pectin-dissolving bacteria from retted flax, mostly belonging to the Clostridium family. Methods of retting
Flax bundles retting in the River Lys,
Dew retting is the preferred method in areas where water sources are limited but that enjoy warm daytime temperatures and heavy nighttime dews. Flax stalks are spread out evenly across a grassy field, where the combination of air, sun
Tank retting takes place in large vats that are typically made of cement, as the acidic waste products of the bacteria
Flax can also be retted chemically, which speeds up the process. It is, however, more harmful to both the environment and the fibers themselves, and is therefore not preferred.
2 After about 90 days, the leaves wither, the stem turns yellow and the seeds turn brown, indicating it is time to harvest the plant. The plant must be pulled as soon as it appears brown as any delay results in linen without the prized luster. It is imperative that the stalk not
DRESSING THE FLAX
Scutching involves scraping a small wooden knife down the length of the fibers as they hang vertically, pulling the broken woody bits away from the fiber. This is a labor-intensive process. One person scutching can produce only about 15 pounds of flax fibers per day; less if the fibers are coarse, hard, or have been poorly retted. The small pieces of leftover bark that remain after scutching are called shive, and are sometimes used as a filler in thermoplastic composites.
The separated bastfibers are next heckled, or combed through a bed of nails that splits and polishes the fibers, and removes the shorter tow fibers from the mix. These tow fibers can then be spun into a coarse yarn from which low-quality linen products are made. The longer fibers (sometimes as long as three feet!) are then ready for spinning.
3. RELEASING THE FIBRE FROM THE STALK
The woody bark surrounding the flax fibre is decomposed by water or chemical retting, which loosens the pectin or gum that attaches the fibre to the stem. If flax is not fully retted, the stalk of the plant cannot be separated from the fibre without injuring the delicate fibre. Thus, retting has to be carefully executed. Too little retting may not permit the fibre to be separated from the stalk with ease. Too much retting or rotting will weaken fibres.
Retting may be accomplished in a variety of ways. In some parts of the world, linen is still retted by hand, using moisture to rot away the bark. The stalks are spread on dewy slopes, submerged in stagnant pools of water, or placed in running streams. Workers must wait for the water to begin rotting or fermenting the stem—sometimes more than a week or two. However, most manufacturers use chemicals for retting. The plants are placed in a solution either of alkali or oxalic acid, then pressurized and boiled. This method is easy to monitor and rather quick, although some believe that chemical retting adversely affects the color and strength of the fibre and hand retting produces the finest linen. Vat or mechanical retting requires that the stalks be submerged in vats of warm water, hastening the decomposition of the stem. The flax is then removed from the vats and passed between rollers to crush the bark as clean water flushes away the pectin and other impurities.
After the retting process, the flax plants are squeezed and allowed to dry out before they undergo the process called breaking. In order to crush the decomposed stalks, they are sent through fluted rollers which break up the stem and separate the exterior fibres from the bast that will be used to make linen. This process breaks the stalk into small pieces of bark called shives. Then, the shives are scutched. The scutching machine removes the broken shives with rotating paddles, finally releasing the flax fibre from stalk.
6 The fibres are now combed and straightened in preparation for spinning. This separates the short fibres (called tow and used for making more coarse, sturdy goods) from the longer and more luxurious linen fibres. The very finest flax fibres are called line or dressed flax, and the fibres may be anywhere from 12-20 in (30.5-51 cm) in length.
The (at long last) separated flax fibers, called stricks, are traditionally spun by hand using a distaff. A distaff is simply a long vertical pole that attaches to a spinning wheel from which the fibers are hung. This helps keep the fibers organized and prevents them from turning into a tangled mess. Spinning involves twisting together the drawn out strands of fiber to form yarns, then winding the yarn onto a bobbin, or spool. The yarn is often slightly dampened during spinning, which helps prevent fly-away strands from escaping the twist and creates an especially-smooth yarn (check out this really cool photojournal of a woman hand-spinning flax).
Flax is always spun very finely–especially the longest of the fibers–resulting in a thin yarn. In order to create a thicker yarn, multiple skeins of this thin yarn can be spun together, a process called plying. You’ve probably heard this term before in reference to your toilet paper. One ply: thin and sufficient. Two or more ply: preferred! The resulting yarn (usually 3-ply or thereabouts) is typically finished by boiling for several hours in soapy water, which gives it a nice shine.
Where is the best quality linen made?
The quality of the linen fabric is greatly dependent upon the retting process. For example, as you already learned, over-retting produces a mushy, weak fiber, and under-retting makes the bits of shive difficult to remove such that the fibers can be damaged during scutching; factors entirely under the control of the retter. The secrets of flax processing have been passed down throughout cultures for thousands of years (Don’t know about the history of flax? Read about it here), and the best linens tend to originate from the enclaves within Europe that have long traditions of flax cultivation:
The best quality linen is retted in slow-moving natural water sources such as streams and rivers. In fact, the highest quality linen in the world is retted in Belgium in the River Lys, though to this day chemists have been unable to determine what makes the waters so conducive to the retting process. Harvested flax is sent to Belgium from France, Holland, and even as far away as South America to be retted in the magical waters of the River Lys, which is typically crowded for miles with weighted down flax bundles.
Irish linen is the best known and most valuable, though most of the flax used for manufacturing is grown elsewhere and imported into the country for processing. The climate in Ireland is quite favorable for flax processing, and the slow Irish bleaching methods inflict minimal damage on the fibers.
European linens are the next finest, with the French producing the whitest and most delicate of textiles. Scotch linen is generally considered of medium quality, and German linen quality ranges from good to poor.
Flax is perhaps most widely cultivated in Russia and China, though the fibers tend to be of poorer quality than their European counterparts.
Smaller flax production centers exist in Egypt, Northern Italy, parts of Canada and the northern United States.
Linen fabric feels cool to the touch, a phenomenon which indicates its higher conductivity (the same principle that makes metals feel “cold” to touch). It is smooth, making the finished fabric lint-free, and gets softer the more it is washed. However, constant creasing in the same place in sharp folds will tend to break the linen threads. This wear can show up in collars, hems, and any area that is iron creased during laundering. Linen has poor elasticity and does not spring back readily, explaining why it wrinkles so easily.
Linen fabrics have a high natural luster; their natural color ranges between shades of ivory, ecru, tan, or grey. Pure white linen is created by heavy bleaching. Linen fabric typically varies somewhat in thickness and is crisp and textured, but it can in some cases feel stiff and rough, and in other cases feel soft and smooth. When properly prepared, linen fabric has the ability to absorb and lose water rapidly. Linen can absorb a fair amount of moisture without feeling unpleasantly damp to the skin, unlike cotton.
Linen is a very durable, strong fabric, and one of the few that are stronger wet than dry. The fibers do not stretch, and are resistant to damage from abrasion. However, because linen fibers have a very low elasticity, the fabric eventually breaks if it is folded and ironed at the same place repeatedly over time.
Mildew, perspiration, and bleach can also damage the fabric, but it is resistant to moths and carpet beetles. Linen is relatively easy to take care of, since it resists dirt and stains, has no lint or pilling tendency, and can be dry-cleaned, machine-washed or steamed. It can withstand high temperatures, and has only moderate initial shrinkage.
Linen should not be dried too much by tumble drying, and it is much easier to iron when damp. Linen wrinkles very easily, and thus some more formal garments require ironing often, in order to maintain perfect smoothness. Nevertheless, the tendency to wrinkle is often considered part of linen’s particular “charm”, and many modern linen garments are designed to be air-dried on a good clothes hanger and worn without the necessity of ironing.
A characteristic often associated with linen yarn is the presence of “slubs”, or small knots which occur randomly along its length. In the past, slubs were traditionally considered to be defects, and were associated with low quality linen. However, in the case of many present-day linen fabrics, particularly in the decorative furnishing industry, slubs are considered as part of the aesthetic appeal of an expensive natural product. In addition, slubs do not compromise the integrity of the fabric, and therefore they are not viewed as a defect. However, the very finest linen has very consistent diameter threads, with no slubs at all.
The standard measure of bulk linen yarn is the lea, which is the number of yards in a pound of linen divided by 300. For example, a yarn having a size of 1 lea will give 300 yards per pound. The fine yarns used in handkerchiefs, etc. might be 40 lea, and give 40×300 = 12,000 yards per pound. This is a specific length therefore an indirect measurement of the fineness of the linen, i.e., the number of length units per unit mass. The symbol is NeL.(3) The metric unit, Nm, is more commonly used in continental Europe. This is the number of 1,000 m lengths per kilogram. In China, the English Cotton system unit, NeC, is common. This is the number of 840 yard lengths in a pound.
Physical Properties of Linen:
Physical properties of linen fibers are given below:
Tensile Strength: Linen is a strong fiber. It has a tenacity of 5.5 to 6.5 gm/den. The strength is greater than cotton fiber.
Elongation at break: Linen does not stress easily. It has an elongation at break of 2.7 to 3.5 %.
Color: The color of linen fiber is yellowish to grey.
Length: 18 to 30 inch in length.
Lusture: It is brighter than cotton fiber and it is slightly silky.
Elastic Recovery: Linen fiber has not enough elastic recovery properties like cotton fiber.
Specific Gravity: Specific gravity of linen fiber is 1.50.
Moisture Regain (MR %): Standard moisture regain is 10 to 12%.
Resiliency: Very poor.
Effect of Heat: Linen has an excellent resistance to degradation by heat. It is less affected than cotton fiber by the heat.
Effect of Sun Light: Linen fiber is not affected by the sun light as others fiber. It has enough ability to protect sun light.
Chemical Properties of Linen:
Linen is a natural cellulosic fiber and it has some chemical properties. Chemical properties of the linen fiber are given below:
Effect of Acids: Linen fiber is damaged by highly densified acids but low dense acids does not affect if it is wash instantly after application of acids.
Effects of Alkalis: Linen has an excellent resistance to alkalis. It does not affected by the strong alkalis.
Effects of Bleaching Agents: Cool chlorine and hypo-chlorine bleaching agent does not affect the linen fiber properties.
Effect of Organic Solvent: Linen fiber has high resistance to normal cleaning solvents.
Effect of Micro Organism: Linen fiber is attacked by fungi and bacteria. Mildews will feed on linen fabric, rotting and weakling the materials. Mildews and bacteria will flourish on linen under hot and humid condition. They can be protected by impregnation with certain types of chemicals. Copper Nepthenate is one of the chemical.
Effects of Insects: Linen fiber does not attacked by moth-grubs or beetles.
Dyes: It is not suitable to dye. But it can be dye by direct and vat dyes.