Linen is made from the fibres of the flax plant and is one of the oldest textiles known to man. The use of flax fibres to weave cloth in northern Europe dates back to pre-Roman times. Flax fibre cloths have been found in Switerland having been left by Neolithic Lake Dwellers over 10,000 years ago. Use of flax pre-dates the invention of the wheel!
|The flax plant|
The flax plant is an annual with slender stems with 5-petal flowers of pale blue. The fruit is a capsule of edible brown seeds the size of apple pips. It is an adaptable plant and given the right soil (rich, loamy) it can tolearate many climates. Northern France, Belgium and Holland have been famous for fine quaility flax and it is still grown there today, but the most output these days is from the USSR.
Flax fibres vary in length from 2-15 inches. Two varieties of fibre are extracted from a stem-shorter tow fibres used for coarser fabrics and longer line fibres used in finer linens. The fibre is soft and flexible and stronger than cotton, but less elastic. The best grades are used for linen fabrics such as damasks and sheeting. Coarser grades are used to make rope and twine. Flax fibres are also one of the raw materials used in manufacturing bank notes.
So, back to the Irish connection, which is the manufacture of linen from the flax fibres. For over three hundred years linen manufacture has been an important industry, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries. In Northern Ireland practically every town and village had a mill or a factory.
By 1921 there were almost one million spindles and 37,000 looms, with over 70,000 directly employed, representing 40% of the registered working population, with closer to 100,000 people dependent on the linen industry. Now, less than 10 such companies exist and the work force is around 4,000 people.
|Pleated linens at a store in the New York Garment District.|
The special and attractive properties of Irish linen are:
(1) In its purified, bleached form the flax fibre is largely pure cellulose with a smooth, highly lustrous surface. It is hygroscopic, that is, it is sensitive to moisture, and absorbs up to one-fifth of its own oven-dry weight of water without being damp on the surface. The personal importance of this quality is evident when one thinks of clothing worn next to the skin.
(2) Bleached linen absorbs water from a wet surface very rapidly and it is smooth, without loose, protruding hairs. This is why flax is by far and away the ideal fibre for making towels of all kinds, glass cloths and handkerchiefs.
(3) Unlike most textiles, flax yarns and fabrics increase about one-fifth in strength on wetting … a fact which is of considerable importance for cloths that have to undergo repeated launderings, particularly in the washing machine age.
(4) Linen fibres swell when wet. In suitably designed fabrics, such as tents, tarpaulins and hose-pipes, the interspaces can be completely closed up to prevent the passage of water; in other words, to make them practically waterproof.
(5) Linen fabrics have the highest resistance to tearing because flax is the strongest natural fibre.
|Shimmering linens at a store in New York City|