A Quick Guide to Linen: Sustainable, Durable, and Luxuriously Comfortable

A little rumpled linen lends a warm, inviting vibe to this light blue and white Scandinavian style bedroom

To me, there’s no fabric that says “home” quite like linen. It’s the girl next door of textiles with a wholesome, natural beauty. And it happens to be one of the most environmentally friendly fabrics around. As a long-standing part of European nature and history, it’s the perfect fabric for an eco-friendly Nordic style home.

linen cloth
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

A Sustainable Tradition

Much of the flax grown around the world is used for industrial purposes and doesn’t produce textile-quality linen. 80 percent of the world’s scutched flax fibers — those prepared for spinning — originate in Europe.

So you’ll find much of your fine linen products come from flax grown in Belgium, Ireland, France, and the Netherlands. Needless to say, whose linen is best is up for debate.

Linen has a long history of use in the Nordic region, too. Before the 19th century, flax, along with hemp and nettle, was the main plant fiber used in textiles. Small quantities are still grown in Sweden and Norway.

Lithuania has long been renown for its linen and it still produces a lot of finished linen products. Today, though, there’s almost no flax actually grown there.

A Simple Luxury

A little rumpled linen lends a warm, inviting vibe to this light blue and white Scandinavian style bedroom
A little rumpled linen lends a warm, inviting vibe to this light blue and white Scandinavian style bedroom

High-quality linen is a wonderfully durable, low-maintenance fabric that only gets softer and more comfortable with time. It lasts longer than cotton, so you can enjoy your linen items for decades if you care for them well. These are pieces you can pass on as family heirlooms.

Because it’s breathable and cooling, and it absorbs moisture without holding bacteria, it’s perfect for summer bedding. Its absorbancy also makes it a better choice for tea towels than cotton.

Now, if you’ve ever owned linen clothing, you’re probably thinking about how easily this fabric wrinkles. While that’s true, unless you’re dead set on having perfectly pressed sheets and kitchen towels, it’s not really an issue. In fact, that rumbled look is a perfect fit for a vintage style home or summer cottage. It also for adds a relaxed, homey warmth to a modern interior.

But there’s another reason to bring this fabric into your home. Linen, it seems, has developed a certain cache.

Because it’s so labor-intensive to produce, linen made in limited quantities and offers the appeal of exclusivity. It’s a rare produce: linen represents just 1 percent of textile products consumed worldwide. European linen, in particular, is often produced by small farmers and artisans. Much of this is still harvested by hand to ensure the highest quality fibers.

Browse your favorite Scandinavian design sites and magazines, and you’ll most likely see linen tea towels, pillows, and bedding in high-end homes. Having a few well-chosen linen items around will make you feel like you’re lounging on a yacht or enjoying a long weekend at summer cottage deep in a northern pine forest.

Gentle on the Earth

Textiles don’t get much more sustainable than linen. There are a few reasons for this.

  • Flax requires around 25 to 60 percent less water than cotton, depending on where it’s grown. It favors cool, rainy climates, which cuts the need for irrigation. In areas where it grows naturally, it requires little to no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.
  • Every part of the flax plant can be used, meaning there’s almost no waste. For example, linseed oil, used for wood varnish, is one common use for the seeds.
  • Producing linen cloth from flax requires little water and has next to no environmental impact. Some producers use chemicals during the process of retting, or separating the plant stalk from the fiber, which of course is a less green option.
  • Natural un-dyed linen comes in a range of elegant neutral shades–-ivory, ecru, grey, and tan–that fit any decor style. To be turned pure white linen, however, linen has to undergo a heavy bleaching process, so it’s not the most eco-friendly color choice.
  • Linen is biodegradable. So much so that you can cut up your old all-natural, un-dyed linen items, add them to your compost pile, and they’ll break down in as little as two weeks.

What to Look for

Climate has a big impact on the quality of fibers a flax plant produces and generally the finest linen tends to come from cool, damp climates.

Flax should be harvested by hand to ensure the longest fibers are obtained and to retain the sap that keeps the flax soft and pliable. No machine that can do this, so the highest quality linen comes from small producers.

Like other fibers, linen comes in a variety of weaves and weights. One of the most common is plain-woven linen fabric, which has a smooth texture and is often used for towels because it doesn’t leave streaks when drying.

Cambric linen is the finest of this type. Loose-weave linen has a more casual, rustic look, but it’s softer and more absorbent. Scrim linen is light and nearly transparent, so it’s a popular choice for curtains.

If you’re looking for natural sheets, make sure they aren’t treated with chemicals to minimize wrinkling. This might keep you sheets looking smoother for a while, but it weakens the fibers and shortens the item’s lifespan.

Because standard flax cultivation and linen production methods already have such little environmental impact, it’s not as essential to look for sustainability certification, such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) label, as it is with cotton. That said, choosing organic linen will give you the peace of mind of knowing it the flax was grown without chemical fertilizers and processed without chemical retting methods.

Are you a linen fan, too (or maybe you just became one 😉 )? How do you like to use linen around the house? Sheets, tea towels, table clothes?

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