Its popularity rating is soaring. Brands have increasingly been making it the star of their collections over the past few seasons. Even cotton specialist Petit Bateau has a line given over to it. It’s also found in some beauty products! It has to be said that linen is racking up the plus points.
When it comes to Clean Fashion (ethically-sound fashion), table linen or bedlinen, linen is thriving. While as yet it only accounts for 2.4% of worldwide natural-fibre production (versus 75% for cotton), it is 80% produced in Europe and France is the world’s biggest producer. Gallic pride!
This is why a great many French brands which are now favouring all things Made in France are putting it front and centre, and working to re-establish an industry that’s still too focussed on offshoring.
Linen – an eco-friendly plant
Linen is a herbaceous plant with pretty blue flowers. Its natural fibres are found in its stems rather than its flowers. It’s the world’s oldest natural fabric. In the days of the Pharaohs, bodies were embalmed in linen bands. These days it’s cultivated mainly for its textile fibres and oilseeds.
- Almost zero environmental impact
Linen cultivation calls for little water and little in the way of pesticides. The plant grows naturally thanks to the sun’s warmth and rainwater, so it requires no irrigation, unlike cotton. It’s also a very strong plant fibre that needs almost no fertiliser or even pesticides. Plus, linen is a carbon capture well: each hectare of linen captures 3.7 tons of CO2 per year.
As for linen production, that’s eco-friendly too. Each of the processing stages (harvesting, retting, scutching, combing, spinning, weaving and item assembly) is done mechanically and without chemical solvents. On average, a hectare of linen yields 1,300 kilos of long scutched fibres, in which straw and seeds get separated out. Lastly, on condition that the original fibre doesn’t get blended with synthetic fibres or dyed with chemicals, it’s totally biodegradable.
- Zero waste
Another plus point is that all parts of the plant get used. Its stems get turned into multi-purpose fibres. Its seeds get salvaged, either to be planted in turn, or to yield culinary oils that are high in omega 3, or to make paint.
Linen – a fabric with multiple qualities
– Linen is renowned for its incredible strength (2-3 times greater than that of cotton).
Linen fibre is robust yet lightweight and soft, with a very long lifespan. While at first glance it appears stiff, it softens over time with wear and laundering. Linen owes this property to the pectins – members of the sugar family – that make up the walls of its fibres. They impart structure and body to the fibres. They also make them hydrophilic, i.e. very absorbent. Linen can retain 20% of its weight in moisture.
This particularity accounts for its heat regulation, hypoallergenic and antibacterial properties. Accordingly, linen clothes are particularly nice to wear in the heat. They are lightweight, and keep the body at the perfect temperature while having great powers of absorption. Linen is also a very good insulator, thanks to its hollow fibres which retain both heat and coolness.
- And its many uses
There are multiple uses for linen. Its fine fibres are used for clothing, home textiles and soft furnishings, with a high-end premium image. As for thicker linen fibres, they can be used as an insulation material, to absorb vibrations or can be incorporated into composite materials to strengthen them. Linen is also used in the automotive sector (components and insulators), the hi-tech sector (audio headsets, stereo systems) and the sporting goods sector (skis, bicycles, tennis rackets, surfboards, etc.). Linen also plays a part in the production of banknotes and cigarette papers.
France – the world’s biggest linen producer and exporter
- Production mainly located in Europe
Linen only grows in temperate, damp climates, and accordingly, 85% of the scutched linen produced worldwide comes from a coastal strip that goes from Caen to Amsterdam, following the coastlines of Belgium, the Netherlands and France. In France, the world’s biggest producer with 140,000 cultivated hectares, linen is cultivated in Seine-Maritime, in the North, the Pas de Calais, the Somme, Oise, Eure, and Calvados. France is renowned for its high-quality linen, with fine strong fibres. The European linen trade currently consists of 10,000 companies across 14 countries.
- Production that goes for export
The hitch: 95% of France’s production gets exported, mainly to China or India, for processing. Which obviously enlarges the carbon footprint of this very eco-friendly material. On the other side of the world, Chinese and Indian workers spin, weave and assemble garments which then get sold on in France, Italy or Belgium, and also Japan, which is fond of this fabric, and these days even in China. So France buys clothes made from the linen that it sold a few months earlier.
Plus, some producers use chemicals in linen processing phases (dyeing, chemical treatments, etc.) which undermine the eco-friendliness and impair the quality of the natural linen fibre. The clothes get creased and worn more quickly and are less hard-wearing. Some certifications, like Masters of Linen®, do vouch for linen that’s 100% produced in Europe, from the field to the thread to the fabric.
Mills for linen that’s 100% French
This absurd state of affairs caught the attention of certain brands that are all about items Made In France.
And so it was that the collective named Linpossible was set up, led by the principled brands Splice and 1083, followed by Le Slip Français, the LCBIO (Lin et Chanvre Bio) association, the Alsace-based textile company Velcorex, the Tissage de France company based in Romans-sur-Isère, the specialised cooperative Terre de Lin and Safilin, one of Europe’s last remaining linen mills.
For years now, the collective has been working to see mills reopen in France, as the missing final link in the supply chain of linen clothing that’s 100% made in France. Because Safilin, the country’s last remaining linen mill, had to shut down its site in Hauts-de-France in 2005 and relocate its machinery to Poland.
So in 2022, Safilin is going to reopen a linen mill with 14 spinning machines, including 12 reserved for “wet” production (used mainly for textile production) and two “dry” spinning machines (for thicker thread, not least for decoration items and also thicker garments). It is expected to turn out 350 tonnes of thread per year.
Other plans have come through, too. In 2021, the Alsace-based company Velcorex set up a dry spinning mill site, not least to produce linen denim. And in early 2022 Natup, which already has a linen combing factory (42 employees), is expected to set up a mill in Saint-Martin-du-Tilleul (Normandy) with annual linen thread production capacity of 250 tonnes and 25 employees. However, it will come at a cost: the Linpossible collective surmises that the price per kilo of linen spun in France will be around double that of linen spun overseas.
Linen, an eco-friendly fabric and the pride of France, now gets exported all over the world, but via mills that are European at best, and often located in China. Which enlarges its eco-friendly footprint and sometimes impairs its quality. Thankfully, the challenge of getting a 100% French linen trade back on its feet seems to have been taken up, but to produce linen that’s more luxurious and therefore more costly.