Textiles surround our lives; they make up the clothes we wear, the bedding we sleep on, and of course, our handkerchiefs to name a few.
Of all the textiles in the world, there is perhaps none more deserving of praise than linen.
In its most basic form, linen was the first fiber used by mankind on Earth, and it has not stopped serving humanity ever since. Its foundational flax plant has been cultivated for thousands of years by societies around the world and its presence can be observed throughout history.
Linum usitatissimum, as it is known —meaning “flax, most useful”— is a name given for good reason. The flax plant is highly versatile, it can be used as a source of fiber for weaving or its seed oil can be extracted and used for nourishment or medicinal benefits.
It’s woven linen fabric is also host to a long list of benefits that include it being: durable, comfortable, eco-friendly, rapid drying, naturally antibacterial, insect resistant, antistatic, thermoregulatory, and biodegradable in its natural form.
Yet, not many are aware of these wide-ranging benefits which has led to linen being underutilized and often misunderstood.
Today linen makes up less than 1% of the world's annual textile production and its total production volume has remained relatively constant over the last 50 years – even as the world's population has more than doubled.
Why is that?
- Flax, when grown for textile use, requires the expertise of experienced farmers to know when to perform each of the multiple steps in its cultivation and harvesting process
- Once flax fibers are spun, linen is a laborious, and hence costly, fabric to weave
- All the while, cotton and petroleum-based fibers are widespread and easy and inexpensive to produce
Today, however, we are at a turning point in which the values of the world are shifting in favor of durability and eco-friendliness – qualities that have been long associated with linen, and are specifically sought out by its frequent users.
Studies have shown, that frequent linen users pay closer attention to labels, prefer locally sourced products, are more willing to purchase certified products, and are more keen to support Fairtrade conditions.
In an unreliable industry such as textile production, the trustworthiness of European linen is a refreshing change of pace.
The Textile Industry
The production of textiles is one of the world's pillar industries. When broken down, it consists of 60% clothing and apparel uses with the remaining spread between various uses in the medical field, automotive industry, agriculture, and other sectors. All in all, it is responsible for somewhere between $900 billion-$3 trillion in global economic activity depending on how it is defined.
For reference, in 2010 the fashion industry produced more than 150 billion garments – enough for every person in the world to receive more than 20 new pieces of clothing each.
By design, the textile industry is an ever-expanding, resource-intensive sector that generates a considerable portion of global waste and has widespread negative effects on the environment. Additionally, it continues to face issues in upholding basic social and human rights.
The textile industry accounts for roughly 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Generally speaking, the textile industry has made very little progress over the past decade in reaching its emission reduction targets. In fact, one could say it has been charging headfirst in the wrong direction – as global clothing consumption is projected to increase 63% by 2030.
Its problems begin at the source.
Over the past century, the textile industry has come to rely largely on non-renewable resources. This reliance includes the nearly two-thirds of all fibers being derived from oil as well as the heavy use of carbon-intensive fertilizers and pesticides in growing conventional cotton (accounting for around 70% of emissions associated with conventional cotton cultivation).
- Synthetic fibers require anywhere from 2-4 times as much energy to produce as natural fibers.
- Cotton cultivation makes up 2.4% of the world’s arable land but accounts for a disproportionate 11% of the world’s pesticide use.
Industry consultants have suggested that by improving the fiber mix alone, 41 million tonnes of GHG emissions could be saved by 2030. This assumes a shift to just 20% recycled polyester and an 11% increased adoption of natural textiles by 2030.
Therefore, the adoption of eco-compatible fibers is necessary for getting the fashion industry on track towards its climate targets. Sadly however, as of today, the trend is continuing in the wrong direction, as even cotton is shrinking in world fiber share compared to polyester.
As we've said, linen makes up less than 1% of the textiles produced each year. Any increase in this number would greatly help towards improving the emissions generated by the apparel industry, as linen is perhaps the most eco-friendly textile.
In a study seeking to quantify the environmental impact and sustainability of all textile fibers, flax ranked the lowest across multiple categories including:
- Damage to ecosystem quality
- Damage to resources
- Damage to human health
- Energy use per kilogram of fiber produced
The study concluded:
"Flax consumes less energy than cotton and all of the other fibers under consideration"
Linen has even been shown to have a lower environmental footprint than hemp – a universally celebrated eco-fabric.
However, to improve the industry's environmental impact it goes beyond sourcing greener products; it is also about making textiles that last.
Durability & Repurposing
The number of clothes the average consumer purchases has increased 60% between 2000 and 2014 and the clothes are kept about half as long.
Improving a textile's durability is one of the greatest levers that could be pulled in reducing fashion's impact, as no other quality can stop a piece of clothing from entering the trash in the first place. Yet, the world's most popular fabrics fail to deliver on this attribute.
Further, when textiles do meet their end-of-life the majority end up in landfills or are incinerated when they can often be reused or repurposed.
A major goal of the textile industry must then be to make durability attractive —a less is more approach—, plan for the full life cycle, and increase fabric recycling and repurposing.
This is where the craftsmanship of European flax farmers and linen weavers pays dividends, the increased upfront investment bestows the material with a longevity that is unmatched by other fabrics. It is not uncommon for well kept linen goods to last for decades.
This is also aided by flax being the strongest plant-based fiber in the world.
Further, flax is a zero waste crop – meaning when it is harvested, all of its fibers are used to some end, with the longest fibers being used for textile applications and the shorter fibers being used in material composites and the paper industry.
The textile industry employs over 40 million people around the world and makes up a large portion of the overall employment in several countries.
All of these concerns are on the top of shopper's minds and, studies show, many will go out of their way to ensure they are not supporting brands who could be associated with such conditions.
This is reflected in the recent worldwide push for increased transparency. In a survey, over 69% of respondents claimed they would like to know how their clothes are manufactured. Additionally, 72% believed fashion brands should have certifications backing up their ethical production standards.
(For those interested in learning more about where and how our handkerchiefs are made, click here)
Being that 80% of the world's linen production is woven in Europe, an increased use of linen across the textile sector would help sidestep many of its biggest social and ethical issues.
For those looking for more, the Masters of Linen certification ensures that fibers are woven in Europe from 100% traceable European-origin flax and holds farmers, spinners, and weavers accountable to social responsibility standards. In this way, the quality of the final linen product is a symbol of all that has gone into making it.
However, it does not end there. It also important that brands choose to have their products sewn in facilities that uphold similar standards.
Linen is a beautiful material that touches on many of the challenges faced by the textile industry today – specifically those related to ecological, quality, and ethical considerations.
Unfortunately, what currently stands in its way is an overwhelming supply of cheap and environmentally harmful fabrics; thankfully however, the cultural tides are now turning in favor of the qualities of linen.
We could not be more enthusiastic about linen's prospects in the coming decades and hope to do all we can to encourage its increased adoption.