When you think of linen, you might daydream about the perfect linen sheets to add to your cart; the quality linen shirts you can’t wait to feel against your skin.
Maybe you associate the material with luxury or relaxation.
Linen fabric is a wonder: known for its durability and potential to keep us cool or warm, depending on the season. And that is why we love linen.
Although linen needs more ironing than other fabrics and cotton might be better in terms of elasticity, linen is still highly regarded because it is breathable and lightweight.
Linen may seem expensive, especially the finest linen, but you can understand why.
Linen fabric is a natural textile that comes from the flax plant. Producing flax thread and cultivating the flax plant itself requires an immense amount of care and attention.
Now that we’re all on the same page, when it comes to the benefits of this material, have you ever wondered about the production process of linen?
Where it all got started
Linen dates back to ancient Egypt, used as the burial shrouds and wrappings for ancient Egyptian mummies. The history of linen is quite fascinating as the Greeks and Romans also valued it as a commodity.
Quality linen became an heirloom, passed on through generations.
A town in Ireland is even known as “Linenopolis” because of its thriving linen production and trade in the 18th century.
Flax production is widespread in Europe, and it’s still a staple of Western European agricultural production.
Although flax grows in various climates, it’s easy to harvest where the weather is cool, and moist soil offers ideal growing conditions.
Some of the most successful linen flax planting regions are France through Belgium and the Netherlands, where the plant has been thriving for generations.
Just head to the western side of Europe, and you’ll witness stunning fields of purple flax flowers.
Let’s first give an overview of the whole flax production process. As mentioned, we make linen from flax. Planting flax seeds, growing them, and eventually harvesting the plants for flax fibres takes about 100 days.
If you want to create more delicate linen, manual pulling from the ground during harvest helps. After harvesting, we remove the seeds through a process called winnowing, or ripping.
Fibre retting is the next step and is integral to the linen production process. The separation is to make sure that the cellulose fibres from the plant degrade naturally.
Retting is a fascinating technique because flax fibres are delicate, so we must handle them with exceptional care. That’s why we use bacteria to decompose the pectin that binds the fibres together.
Once the cellulose fibre comes loose from the woody core, we can thread it.
After retting, we reach the part you’re probably already familiar with through old movies or fairytales. This is the combing and spinning stage.
We must comb the fibre into thin strands so that it’s ready to be spun onto a bobbin for linen yarn.
What is retting?
If you’re not into textile manufacturing, retting might seem like a mystery. But now that we know that retting is an integral step in linen production — let’s discuss the types of retting.
Dew retting is manual labour. In the dew retting process, the flax straw is spread on the grass and exposed to the atmosphere for up to eight weeks.
The goal is for the flax straw to produce a strong, dark grey colour. That’s why warm, daytime temperatures are best.
The combination of bacteria, sun, air, and dew must produce fermentation to dissolve much of the fibre bundles’ stem material.
Water retting is the most widely practised method and takes less time than dew retting (10-15 days). During this time,we must submerge the bundles’ stalks in water such as ponds, bogs, and slow streams and rivers.
The water swells the inner cells and bursts the outermost layer, thus increasing the absorption of both moisture and decay-producing bacteria.
Water retting can be tricky because stagnant pools of water can sometimes cause over-retting, which is responsible for brittle and weak flax fibres.
Tank retting is a fast method that allows greater control. It requires about four to six days and is feasible in any season.
The tank retting process usually employs a concrete vat where flax is immersed in warm water to quicken the decomposition of the woody bark.
The flax is then removed from the vats and passed between rollers to crush the decomposed bark as clean water flushes away the pectin and other impurities.
Waste retting water — which requires treatment to reduce harmful toxic elements before release — is rich in chemicals and sometimes used as liquid fertiliser.
Chemical retting is a retting process unaffected by weather conditions. It drastically shortens the retting process using chemicals such as soda ash and oxalic acid. However, these chemicals will affect the strength and colour of the flax fibre.
The chemical retting process also comes with a high energy cost.
So, why favour dew retting?
For some, regardless of the type of retting, linen is still linen as long as it produces the bedsheets and high-quality fibre we love.
Linen fabric is organic because it is made of flax fibres and is entirely biodegradable. Cheaper, disposable homewares often end up in landfills, while a linen tablecloth or linen bed sheet will last for years.
But hold on, isn’t saving money and energy just as important? Some methods of linen production can have damaging environmental effects.
That’s why dew retting is a no brainer for us at Ecosa, as it only takes 2-8 weeks, and you don’t need to waste other resources.
Living in an eco-friendly world
It’s hard not to love linen. It’s a natural fabric and the process behind it is cheap, simple, sustainable, and most of all, eco-friendly!
You can find everything you need for dew retting in nature, the sun, air, dew, and fungi. All of these resources come from the earth without contributing to your carbon footprint.
A production free of chemicals and industrial machinery means less money down the drain and even softer sheets for your bedroom.