Hello lovely subscribers
With the passing of a beautiful bank holiday weekend, our celebration of linen alongside the wonderful I Love Linen campaign came to an end. We've had a great time sharing with you our journey with linen, a fantastic sustainable fabric formed from flax that we've featured heavily this year in my spring summer collection. However, as a last hurrah I wanted to share the story of linen from seed to fabric. I hope you enjoy the story of flax below, as well as some particularly pretty vintage illustrations of the flowering flax plant.
Linen starts life as a plant. But when you wear it or sleep on it you don’t think “plant”. A transformation has taken place! Every year between March 15 and April 15 (the climate decides exactly when) linseeds are sewn in fields across Northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Linseeds are the source of the flax plant, which is itself the source of linen.
The flax plant reaches one metre in height 100 days after being sewn, typically in June. Soon after, tiny blue flowers start to bloom. Each plant is packed with buds, which flower at different times and different days. A delicate flower lasts no more than 24 hours, turning the fields into a constantly-renewing sea of cornflower blue; like a weeks-long firework display, one flower fades as another bouquet bursts out nearby.
But what happens next?
July, when the stalks have lost a third of their leaves, is harvest-time for the flax crop. To benefit from the full length of the fibre, the plants are not cut but pulled up, using a special harvesting machine.
The long roots remain in the soil, helping to fertilise it. Flax is an excellent break crop: a crop that is used in rotation every few years to interrupt the repeated sowing of crops, such as wheat or corn. Flax secures healthy fields without the need for extra fertiliser, leading to a 20-30% increase in returns on crops grown in the field the following year.
The long stalks are laid on the ground in swathes, layers of flax a metre long, where they await retting.
The retting stage is also determined by the weather. As sun makes way for rain and vice-versa, the swathes of flax begin to break down and dry out, helped along by microorganisms and bacteria in the soil. Slowly the green stalks become golden straw and are ready for scutching. To achieve the highest quality, “people have to be impassioned by the flax and linen”, says Edouard Decock, a scutcher from Bergues in Northern France. “A good farmer is a farmer that goes to the field to see how the flax is doing each day, check whether it needs turning over or left for longer,” he says.
Scutching is a mechanical process that happens throughout the year. In a cavernous barn, the straw is fed into a machine about 100 metres long. Passed through numerous metal rollers, the straw is broken and beaten, shedding the seeds and hard woody core before emerging at the other end as soft silver strands.
The transformation of flax into linen is a zero waste process and every element of the flax plant finds a purpose. Seeds, rich in omega 3, are harvested for animal feed and oil, while the woody hard core (shive) goes to make animal bedding, mulch and insulation. Even the dust becomes compost. But those soft silver strands are the source of linen’s best-known manifestations: long fibres are spun and then woven into pure linen fabric, while shorter fibres can be mixed with cotton or wool to create beautiful blended yarns. Flax fibres also beget original textiles and composites – resulting in a multiplicity of products from shirts to surfboard to curtains to armchairs.
From 'The Sunday Linen', a weekly blog written by the I Love Linen campaign.
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