Everything You Need to Know About Working With Linen Fiber

Linen fiber has been used for thousands of years for garments, household textiles, sails, rope and other purposes. Join us for an in-depth exploration linen, including its unique characteristics, how it’s harvested, and how to use it for weaving.

Natural colored linen yarn

What is linen fiber?

Linen is a natural plant fiber taken from the stem of the flax plant. Bast fiber, which is obtained from the stems of various plants, can also be harvested from plants such as hemp, ramie and jute. The composition of linen is cellulose.  Cotton fibers come from the seed pod of the plant and are not bast fibers although cotton is also cellulose.)

There are two main types of flax plant – one that has been bred for the production of linseed oil, the other for fiber. Plants for fiber are taller with fewer seed heads, which helps to ensure the longest possible fibers. For linen, the standard fiber length is between 5″ to 20” (approximately 12 to 50 cm).

The longest finest fibers are reserved for the best quality called “line” linen. Shorter lengths are spun into yarn usually referred to as ‘”tow.” Line linen yarn is very strong and lustrous. Tow yarn is generally weaker and hairy. Tow is often used as weft for textiles like towels.

Harvesting linen

In order to obtain the fiber, harvesting is done by pulling the plant from the ground rather than cutting it. This preserves the maximum length as the fiber transfers water from the roots to the top of the plant.

Once harvested the seed heads are stripped from the dried plant in a process called “rippling.” There are several ways to do this, depending upon country/region and the tradition used in processing.

Once the seed heads have been removed from the plant, the woody portions of the stem need to be broken down in a process called “retting.” There are several methods of achieving this, the two main ones are called vat or dew retting. In the first method the bundles of plant material are placed in large vats of water and through the natural process of rotting away, the woody material the flax fiber can be extracted. The process relies on fermentation and rotting and must be carefully overseen so that it does not go on for too long or stop too soon.

In dew retting, the bundles are spread out on the ground. This process takes longer than vat retting.

Generally fiber processed by vat retting will have a natural beige color; fibers from dew retting will be more of a silver gray.  Before dyeing the fibers are bleached. The most commonly available linen yarns are natural and half-bleached. Bleaching will sometimes weaken the fiber so fully bleached yarn is not readily available to hand weavers.

After retting, the woody portion of the plant must be removed. This is done in a series of steps. The stems are dried and then a tool called a “brake” is used to break up the woody material. The stems are then “scutched,” which beats the stems removing most of the coarse woody bits that remain after breaking.

“Hackling” continues the process of releasing the flax fibers from the plant material. The longer lengths are reserved for the better quality yarns, the shorter bits are kept for spinning tow linen.

The finest fibers are spun wet in order to prevent breakage. Shorter fibers can be spun dry.

Showing a selection of linen yarns

Fiber characteristics of flax (linen) and hemp

  • Characteristic: linen
  • Strength: very high
  • Flexibility: poor
  • Elongation: low
  • Recovery: poor
  • Elasticity: low
  • Resilience: low
  • Density: high
  • Absorbency: high

Burn test

Flax will burn with an orange and yellow flame with some sparking. It will ignite easily and is not self-extinguishing when removed from the flame. After extinguishing, the flame the residue is a fragile gray ash.

Weaving with linen

Linen does not have much elasticity and it prefers a humid environment. These attributes mean that if you live in an arid climate and are a new weaver, you may want to begin by using linen for weft, just to get used to how it acts.

It is very important that warps be wound with consistent tension and that the warp then be beamed with firm tension. Linen prefers a loom with counterbalanced or countermarche action rather than a rising or jack action type of loom. That is not to say you can’t use a rising shed or jack loom just that you will have to be particularly careful with beaming the warp with consistent tension.

Showing a variety of linen cloths

I live in a climate where the humidity can fall quite dramatically, especially in the winter when the temperatures are cold. Inevitably I seem to choose these times to weave with linen, so I make sure to run a humidifier to keep the yarn happy and cooperative. Generally I aim for about 50 to 60% humidity near and around the loom.

The weft is wound onto plastic bobbins then placed into a plastic bag with a damp cloth to set overnight and absorb some moisture into the yarn. I try to wind enough bobbins for the next day’s weaving, although if I don’t get all the bobbins woven off they can stay in the plastic bag for several days. Linen is more mildew-resistant than cotton, but can be damaged by prolonged exposure to moisture. Placing the bag in the refrigerator will help to delay any mildew formation if it is going to be more than a few days before the damp bobbins can be woven off.

Bobbins should be wound with firm tension and if using plastic bobbins with flanges, the wraps of yarn should not be wound too near the top of the flange. The linen being stiff and springy will be inclined to leap off the bobbin and wrap around the spindle of the shuttle, causing jams and tangles.

If you use an end feed (delivery) shuttle, be sure to wind the yarn with good tension so that it will feed off evenly.

Linen yarns require a little more care and attention but the results are well worth the extra effort.

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