Linen is the world’s oldest material and is made from the stems of the flax plant, the beautiful bright blue flowering crop that I first came across growing in a field in Yorkshire. Now in the UK flax is mainly grown for its seed and oil (known as either flaxseed or linseed) which go into many nutritional supplements or wood finishing products (in fact Amy used it to finish the beautiful birch utensils she has carved for us!).
To make the yarn the farmer pulls the crop up by its roots after flowering and lets it dry. The stems stay lying down on the earth for a few more weeks allowing the moisture from the morning dew to encourage fungi that will breakdown the pectins that bind the fibres and the woody part of the flax stems together so they can be separated and the fibres woven. It’s this process that makes flax a carbon negative crop as it gives nitrogen back to the soil as it lies cut on top. The fungi that eat the pectins also have anti-bacterial properties which are transferred to the fibrous stem and become a part of the linen cloth – which explains why linen shirts, tea towels etc get less smelly than cotton ones!
Flax is a crop well suited to the UK and northern Europe climate and isn’t water hungry in the way that cotton is which makes it much more sustainable, and being grown on our doorstep means the transport miles are loads less than for cotton.
For about 300 years linen was Northern Ireland’s main export with the flax grown, harvested and woven there. It was cotton’s increasing popularity and cheaper price that marked linen’s decline and now there’s just one linen weaving mill left in Banbridge, Northern Ireland. In fact the industry’s decline is really bought home to you when you realise there used to be 38 linen weavers in Banbridge and now it’s just one in the whole country