Summer fibres: Linen

Linen is one of my favourite fibres to work with in summer months. It is such versatile fibre that is available in a vast variety of blends including wool and linen, cotton and linen and so on. Linen on its own might not be the softest to knit with but it has the magic property of becoming softer with each wash.

Linen is a cellulose fibre and derived from the flax plant. It is a very strong fibre and will usually produce clothing that is very durable. Using linen for clothes and other items has a long tradition going back as far as the ancient Egyptians but where also used by ancient Romans and Greeks. It is great for hot climates even though the plant itself does not like too hot weather which is why it is usually sown during winter. These days amongst others Canada, Russia, France, Argentine as well as Pakistan and India are big flax producing countries

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Various stages of linen during production. Source: Sharon Kallis

 

How linen is made

The process of making linen from flax is somewhat time consuming as it is actually the inner bark of the plant that is used. To separate the inner bark from the rest of the plant the flax plants have to rot in a process that is called retting. This usually involves the application of water or dew but can also be done by emerging the plants into a chemical solution which is the process most manufactures use.

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Flax plants. Source: Joybileefarm

Dew retting is the most sustainable process as it uses less water but it also results in a darker fibre that is often not as uniform in quality as water retting the plant can produce. The process of rotting takes, depending on the method, anything from 2 to 6 weeks.

After the retting is completed the plants are usually beaten with blunt wooden or metal blades. This is called scutching and will remove the fibres from the woody stalks. In modern production of linen a machine is able to do this process. It breaks the stalks into small pieces and is than able to separate the fibres from the unwanted pieces of the plant.

The next step is to combed the fibres to straighten them before spinning and to separate the shorter from the longer fibres. The shorter fibres tend to be coarser. Usually have an incredible staple length and can be as long as 30″.

In order to prepare the fibre further for spinning, in modern production, machines called spreaders are used. They create roving that can be used for spinning by combining fibres of the same length and laying them parallel so that ends overlap.

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Handspinning linen. Source: Ennea Collective

For linen to be spun the mills require a humid and warm atmosphere as that makes the fibres easier to work with. To create soft linen fibres the fibres are spun wet. When spun wet the fibres need to be dried thoroughly before it can be further processed.

Linen has a naturally off white to yellowish/greyish tint but it is possible to dye the fibres and they can produce some stunning colours. Especially when blended with other fibres you often get a slight difference in colour absorption that result in beautiful yarns.

Pro and Con

As mentioned above linen is a great fibre for warm weather and can handle exposure to sun very well. It is somewhat brighter then cotton and sometimes can even appear silky. It is a very resilient and strong fibre and clothes usually last a long time often improving over time. There is also no pilling with linen.

Linen is not super soft and, if you have sensitive hands, can be be a little uncomfortable to knit with which is due to its lack of elasticity. It also has little ‘memory’ and creases easily. Repeated creasing in the same place can also weaken the fibre and it can break in these places.

Linen yarn and linen blends

Below you find a small selection of linen yarn and linen blends. The ones displayed here are either ones I have worked with or from companies I have used other yarns from or have only heard good things about. The list is not exhaustive in the slightest and it is certainly worth searching the internet for more.

BC Garn Allino (cotton and linen blend)

Blacker Lyonesse (wool and linen blend)

Quince and Co. Sparrow (100% linen) and Kestrel (100% linen)

Shibui Twig (linen, silk and wool)

Rowan Creative Linen (linen and wool)

Isager Linen (100% linen)

 

Linen pattern ideas

There are some amazingly beautiful knitting patterns using linen yarn or blends out there. Here is a selection of some of my favourites:

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Thornett by Sara Thornett in Pom Pom Mag 17 using a cotton/linen blend

 

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Deschain by Leila Raabe in Linen

 

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Twinleaf by Grace Anna Farrow in wool/silk/linen/llama blend

 

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Jessie’s Girl by Elizabeth Smith in wool/linen/silk blend

 

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Quick Sand by Heidi Kirrmaier in linen

 

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Canyon by Mel Ski in linen

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