Linen's legendary breathability makes it a breeze for summer

By Deborah Deasy
Thursday, July 25, 2002

Ancient Egyptians went to their graves wrapped in this strong, airy and absorbent fabric.

Jesus Christ likely lived in it, too.

Yes, it wrinkles, and yes, some say it makes them look dumpy. But only your birthday suit might match the cooling comfort of linen.

"It's almost like you're not wearing clothing," says Matt Dillon of Coldwater Creek, one of many apparel firms that offer a growing array of dresses, jackets, blouses and pants made with linen.

"We're using it in everything," says Dillon, vice president of merchandising. "I'm wearing it today. ... When I put it on, I feel like I'm instantly putting on something that's classy. ... I do find it very comfortable in the summer."

Born near the Mediterranean Sea, linen comes from the blue-flowering flax plant, an Old World annual whose Latin name partly means "most useful," says Deborah Harding of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Oakland.

"I have linen blouses - they're very comfortable in the summer - but I save them for when I'm going to a meeting, or somewhere nice," says Harding, collections manager of the museum's anthropology section. "If you wear linen, you iron," Harding says. "I don't like ironing it."

Today, however, the wearable fruits of flax often include added portions of silk, rayon, lyocell (Tencel), viscose and other fibers that help to improve linen's aesthetic appeal and performance.

"It's affordable, and it's easy to maintain," Kaufmann's vice president Joanne Pagnanelli says of contemporary linen clothing. "A lot of it is supposed to be wrinkled. It's part of the look. ... It's not stiff and starched. ... It's a softer linen. ... The fiber people have come a long way with linen."

Many retailers are cashing in on the old fabric's new incarnations.

"The catalogs are just dripping with linen. It's all over the place," says textile consultant Jeff Silberman, of Westchester County, N.Y., also a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City.

"The performance qualities (of linen) have been improved dramatically," Silberman says. "You'll see 'washable' linen. You'll see 'wrinkle-free' linen. You'll see cotton and linen blends."

As a textile consultant, Silberman works with a couple of international groups who are looking to invest in future flax and linen production.

"Especially in Russia, there is a huge move to get as much land as they can, to create as much flax fiber and linen as they can," Silberman says.

Fueling that move is fashion, sparked by the latest styles from haute couture designers.

"They showed a lot of linen at the last shows," Silberman says. "If you walk into Banana Republic or Gap, you'll see it. It's all over the place."

In addition to being durable and washable, linen now "wrinkles far less than it used to," Silberman says. "It has a hand (texture) that's very soft, and when you wash it, it gets even better."

Silberman attributes part of linen's improved performance to "resin finishes" previously used to reduce wrinkling in cottons.

"The fabric goes through a process after it's woven and dyed, which kind of coats the fibers," Silberman says. "It just gives linen a better resilience."

What makes linen wrinkle is the relatively stiff nature of its crisscrossing yarns.

"The yarn - which is really a vegetable byproduct - is very stiff, so when you bend it, it stays bent," says Dillon, of Coldwater Creek.

That's why Coldwater Creek routinely blends linens with other fibers in its women's wear.

"We have found that (linen) is more comfortable and user friendly - and better received - when we blend it with silk, or rayon, or some other fiber that isn't stiff," Dillon says. "You get a fabric that still has the characteristics of linen, but it drapes better. It wrinkles less."

At Lands' End in Dodgeville, Wis., it's the same story.

"Linen is an important fiber now. ... In my category, it has expanded dramatically," says Ken Wine, merchandise manager of Lands' End's tailored clothes and sweaters for women. "It gives you certain characteristics that, when combined with other fibers, can be really exciting visually, as well as performance-wise."

New this season at Lands' End, for example -and "extremely popular," says Wine - is a tailored women's jacket (about $80) with matching tailored pants (about $70). Both are made of an Italian linen and viscose fabric.

"Linen may be desirable, or undesirable, depending on whether it's used alone or blended," Wine says. "There are a lot of coatings you can use, and finishes, that help things maintain a smooth surface."

When used alone, however, linen apparel can feel cooler than clothes made of 100 percent cotton.

"It's very, very absorbent," Wine says about the flax plant's wide, long fiber. "Because the fiber is so absorbent, it basically pulls moisture away from your body and disperses it it keeps you dryer.

"Because it's so strong, you can weave the fabric relatively loosely," Wine says. "The looser weave enhances the fiber's natural tendency to wick moisture off the body, and it allows more air to pass through it."

Don't expect linen clothes to disappear, however, once cool weather arrives and summer turns into fall.

"It's kind of a myth that linen is a summer fabric," says Silberman, of the Fashion Institute of Technology.

That's because linen, like cotton, is a cellulose fiber, and cellulose "is one of the best insulators," Silberman says. "You're going to see (linen) more and more in winter fabrics."

The long road to linen

Many uses and qualities distinguish the strong fabric produced from flax, a spindly, nondescript annual.

The plant's stalk produces the fiber used to weave linen, in many forms.

"Linen can be soft and buttery. ... It also can be a rough, tough (fabric)," says professor Jeff Silberman of the Fashion Institute of Technology, New York City. "It used to be used for mail sacks. ... When you see a thatched roof, many times it's made of linen, because it resists weather."

As a fabric, linen tends to wick moisture from the wearer's body in the same way that its fibers work like capillaries in the flax plant.

"It's the fiber that carries the nutrients - the water - and whatever is coming up from the roots. So it wicks moisture along. That's why it's so good for towels in the kitchen," says Deborah Harding, collections manager in the anthropology department at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Pure linen is more absorbent than cotton - and generally costs more, too.

"Linen is more expensive because it takes more effort to create," Harding says. "It is a long, complex process to extract the fiber.

"Basically, you have to pull the plant up by the root. You don't want to cut it. Then you have to do what they call 'rippling' to remove the seeds at the top.

"Then you lay it out, and you let it dry. After it's dry, then you have do what's called 'retting,' which is a controlled rotting process - a chemical breakdown - so that the fibers will separate from the exterior skin of the plant (like a tree's bark).

"There are two ways of doing it. The popular, traditional way is what they call 'dew retting,' where they lay it out on grass and let the dew land on it. ... It takes a couple weeks. Then you dry it again.

"Then you break up the woody interior of the plant. You 'scutch' it - that is, knock off the woody bits. ... You lay it across the edge of a narrow board, and you whack it with a thing that looks like a knife of wood, and it knocks off all those woody bits."

One then pulls the remaining fibers through a series of "heckling" combs, which resemble blocks with teeth.

"You comb out the coarse, broken fibers," Harding says. "This is called the 'tow.'" This tow, once used to make burlap bags, also inspired the word tow head, for a yellow-haired person.

"When you get the broken, nasty stuff out, then you have the long, flax fibers - as in flaxen-haired maiden," Harding says. "It's smooth and it's soft. ... They spin it into thread. Then you can weave it into cloth."

- Deborah Deasy

Deborah Deasy can be reached at or (412) 320-7989.