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Linen: New Looks for an Ancient Fiber

Made of yarns spun from the retted fibers of the flax plant, linen fabrics practically pre-date the history of apparel. With a slubby texture, cool touch, inherent breathability, and semi-permanent wrinkles, linen was the fabric of choice for gentlemen’s warm weather shirts and suits, demure shirtwaists for the ladies, and light weight undergarments or lingerie.

Fast forward a few centuries and linen is once again in demand for fashion apparel–but today’s linen is a long way from those wrinkly shirtings. From bucolic weaves and smart city fabrics to knitwear and fine gauge cut-and-sew knits, linen’s authentic, slightly irregular aesthetics and eco-credentials are very much of the moment.

Flax, like the other bast fibers including jute and hemp, grows well without irrigation or fertilizer in cool, damp climates such as northern Europe, northeastern China and Canada. While China is the largest cultivator of fiber flax, the E.U. grows 70 percent of the world’s premium long-fiber flax, according to the European Confederation of Linen and Hemp (CELC), which vigorously defends the European Flax® and Masters of Linen® brands.

Although flax fibers have historically been difficult to spin in fine counts without breakage, in recent years the scientific breeding of high-quality flax, along with careful blending and new spinning techniques, has resulted in yarns of exceptional fineness and aesthetics. The process is often likened to the expertise of growing and blending grapes to make wine.

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At February’s Première Vision, European linen innovations included slubbed, crêpe, and vegetal-dyed yarns of 100 percent linen, as well as linen yarns blended with cashmere, silk, or TENCEL®. Linen denims, shirtings, jacquards, laces and tulle contrasted with fine gauge linen jerseys, linen/cotton piqué and fleece, and linen knits with spandex, cashmere, or silk.

Spinners are reporting that the demand for linen knitwear is on the rise. At the March SPINEXPO exhibition in Shanghai, linen will be a key focus for several of the spinners. Jiangsu Lugang Science and Technology has developed a series of linen and blended yarns for 12 to 16 gg knitting, using technical innovations to solve spinning issues such as elongation, breakage, and uneven twist. Vertically integrated spinner/knitter Ningxia Zhongyin Cashmere recently contracted with Belgian linen firm Jis Vanneste to supply linen to Zhongyin’s new production facilities in Lingwu city.

Lorenzo Rescali is the owner of international textile trading company Rescali Cotoni, which is developing new technology in conjunction with Chinese partners to create fine linen fabric at a reasonable cost.

“This system can be applied both to the weaving and to knitting, but in my opinion gets more interesting in knitting where the machine limitation is not allowing to knit very fine counts with reasonable costing and quality. In our case we can easily knit a linen Nm 50/1 with improved quality and efficiency compared to the traditional system. In woven we run fabric in a count range Nm 42 — Nm 60,” he said. “Right now we’re starting commercializing our fabric as “soft linen”, as the other main feature which makes our product unique is the touch of the fabric; it is much softer while keeping the typical linen appearance.”

Another approach to the processing of flax and other bast fibers uses an enzyme treatment to “cottonize” the fiber after retting, making it soft enough to card and spin on the cotton system. In Canada and the U.S., a company called Naturally Advanced Technologies in partnership with the National Research Council of Canada developed and patented such a process called CRAiLAR.

According to the company’s chief marketing officer, Jay Nalbach, the real opportunity for CRAiLAR flax is as an environmentally-preferred alternative to cotton. “The big challenge is getting from fiber to fabric to adoption by the merchants,” explains Nalbach. “We’re working specifically with brands that have upstream know-how and will test it out to all levels.” These include Levi-Strauss, Target, Hanesbrands, and PVH.

North Carolina spinner Tuscarora is blending CRAiLAR flax with polyester, and the yarns have received a positive response from Alamac American Knits, as well as from Vertical Textiles in Miami, a supplier to sustainable clothing brand Alternative Apparel.

Alamac’s “American Linen” fabrics are knit from Tuscarora’s CRAiLAR flax blend yarns in counts of 20/1 and 30/1 Ne. According to Jean-Marie Scutari, director of marketing/merchandising for Alamac, “Our American Linen fabrics with CRAiLAR flax are soft, breathable, and comfortable; they are surprisingly wrinkle-resistant, and can be dyed to create lots of different looks. Customers are responding to the collection’s luxurious aspect as a new direction for linen, made here in America.”