Let’s hear it for linen

Man linen shirt

© Maria Lucia Squillari/Flickr

Lucy St. John

Think about your favourite pair of jeans – do you think they’ve affected our world? Probably not. Well, you’re wrong. The cotton they’re made of has a very big impact on our planet. Around 8,000 litres of water are used to produce enough cotton for one pair of jeans, yet it is largely grown in the dry tropics and sub-tropics in India, China and the southern states of the United States. Cotton is also highly susceptible to pests and diseases, resulting in heavy use of insecticides and herbicides by growers. So, is there a more eco-friendly option? What about linen?

Linen was worn 4,000 years ago in ancient Ethiopia and Egypt, where it was also used for burial shrouds, and was introduced to northern Europe more than 2,000 years ago by Phoenician traders of the eastern Mediterranean. Linen is very tough, it has twice the life of cotton, and doesn’t shrink. It’s easy to cultivate in cool, humid climates, too, without the need for large amounts of pesticides or fertilizers – today it is grown from Canada and the United States to China and India as well as throughout northern and eastern Europe. When you also consider that the seed of the plant from which linen comes, flax, also provides an oil that is used in building materials, wood polishes, animal feedstocks and also as a nutritional supplement, why don’t we use more of it?

Woman in linen shirt

© Maria Lucia Squillari/Flickr

There is a ‘but’. Although linen is simple to grow, its processing is labour-intensive. To get the longest and best fibres, it has to be harvested by hand, either by cutting it right by the root or by pulling up the entire plant. The fibres, which come from inside the stalk, have to be separated by soaking the plants in ponds or tanks, then combed and spun into yarn.

All this work adds cost, but given linen’s strength and durability, together with a need to provide employment, perhaps we should reconsider it. It’s been fashionable for thousands of years – apart from the Ethiopians and Egyptians, the Romans wore linen underneath their robes, which is from where we get the term ‘lingerie’, while in the north, linen was thought to keep the wearer clean and healthy. Nowadays, however, people associate linen more with bed sheets, tablecloths, curtains and other furnishing fabrics. But linen items are idea for those hot summer days, as it conducts heat away from the body. At the top end, designers have been using it for a few years now, and more recently both Marks and Spencer and ASDA have introduced wrinkle-free linen shirts, jackets and trousers.

And there are a lot more good things about linen – it’s absorbent, dries and hold dyes well, is resistant to stains, moths and beetles, and is much stronger than cotton, so lasts a lot longer. The way to make linen more fashionable is not only for it to be seen on the catwalks but for more of us to ask for it and wear it … well, everywhere. You’ll look great and you’ll be promoting sustainability. It’s a no-brainer, isn’t it?

Lucy St. John was an intern for TUNZA in November 2011. She is a fashionista who hopes to become a journalist.

Photo credits: Flowers: Tanya Paleski/Flickr. Shirts: Maria Lucia Squillari/Flickr

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