Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Retailers, Getty
Linen is my favorite fabric. It’s soft, breathable, and looks great even wrinkled. Growing up, I was taught by my mom to avoid synthetic fabrics; she’d check the tag of every item and treasured linen above all. As an adult, I still check the tags. I followed in her footsteps with a particular partiality for linen — both because of its physical qualities and, as I learned more about sustainability in fashion, its ecological value. In today’s complex, global, fast-fashion-influenced clothing industry, I tend to opt for linen garments and housewares as much as I can afford to, and I always assumed I was making a reasonably ethical and sustainable choice. But am I?
From seed to garment, linen checks nearly every sustainability box. It’s a plant-based fabric made from the bast fibers of the flax plant, which is a naturally pest-resistant, drought-tolerant, and regenerative crop. The variations of flax used for linen have a short growth cycle with harvest occurring 80 to 100 days after planting, which means it can be grown in between the growing seasons of other crops. In most climates where flax grows, it requires no irrigation and can be grown with rainfall alone. The production of organic-linen fabrics doesn’t require significant chemical treatment or processing and produces little waste. The flax fiber is extremely strong, which means that linen can last decades with proper care, and when a 100-percent-linen item does reach the end of its life, it’s completely biodegradable.
Linen is historically one of the most prevalent fabrics, according to Sara Idacavage, a fashion historian, educator, archivist, and Ph.D. candidate in polymer, fiber, and textile sciences at the University of Georgia. “It was so desirable because it was very, very durable. It was something that you could wear for decades,” she says. “We have probate records of people passing their undergarments to their children and grandchildren.”
Flax is not native to the United States. Idacavage says flax farming made its way to North American soil during the colonial era, followed by full-fledged linen production. “It was a way to become independent from Europe,” says Idacavage. “At the same time, to grow flax and produce linen textiles in the United States, that required Indigenous American land to be taken.” Flax grows well in many parts of the U.S. — in the Northeast, across the Rust Belt, and in the Northwest. When cotton production exploded in the 19th century, Idacavage says, the linen industry in the United States slowly declined.
Linen is labor intensive and, therefore, expensive. Its history is long (literally the longest) and complicated. There are lots of valid reasons why cottons and synthetics are more popular these days — they’re cheaper and more accessible, easier to dye, and easier to take care of — yet we haven’t cast away linen entirely. In fact, in recent years we’ve seen a linen-aissance as interest in slow fashion and natural and sustainable fabrics has increased. But it’s not just sustainability that has kept the linen industry afloat.
Eulanda A. Sanders, a professor in textiles and clothing and the chief strategist of innovation and entrepreneurship for the College of Human Sciences at Iowa State University, is a huge fan of linen. “It’s breathable, it’s comfortable, its works with your body temperature really well,” she says. “It’s a very friendly, inclusive fiber that works well with other fibers, especially other natural fibers. And it has a nice strength to it, too.” Sanders has herself sewn with linen — and knitted with linen yarn — to great success.
A common complaint about linen is how easily it wrinkles. For Liz Pape — whose slow-fashion brand, Elizabeth Suzann (and its iconic Clyde Work Pants), can be credited with helping to revive linen’s place in fashion — the fabric’s imperfections are part of the draw. “Something I theorized a few years ago is that the comparison of a pristine, perfect material next to human skin highlights the differences,” she says. Basically, any imperfections or unevenness, qualities that all human skin has, stand out next to a more uniform, homogeneously smooth material. Linen, in contrast, has a more dynamic texture. “The fabric has life to it. It always just felt like it fit better on a person. It didn’t call such stark attention to the difference between a man-made material and your skin or your body.”
Today, flax is primarily grown in Western Europe, in countries such as France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, then processed and milled in Eastern Europe and China. The global nature of linen production today has increased the fabric’s carbon footprint. Inka Apter, Eileen Fisher’s facilitating manager for research and development and a 26-year employee there, has seen firsthand the evolution of the linen supply chain. “When I started, I got to know some of the mills that we were working with from the very beginning,” she says. She watched Western European linen producers transition to weaving in Eastern Europe and bringing the woven fabric back for dyeing and finishing.
In the 2010s, says Apter, much of the machinery used in linen production was being bought and moved from Western Europe to Eastern Europe and China, where most raw flax is now sent to be processed. Eileen Fisher began sourcing linen fabrics from mills in China around 2000, and Pape sources her linen from a Chinese mill as well — a supplier she met at a small trade show at the beginning of her career as a designer, who she trusts and still works with today. The linen Pape buys is Standard 100 certified by OEKO-TEX (though, as a small business, she can’t afford to pay to certify the Elizabeth Suzann brand since OEKO-TEX requires recertification for every step in the supply chain). At Eileen Fisher, Apter now sources 100-percent-organic linen. “Any linen is better than conventional cotton, for sure,” she says. “Organic linen, if you can, is just a step toward this holistic way of looking at the ecosystem.”
It’s hard to overestimate how sustainable linen is at its best. “We have done compost tests on all of our fabric, and all of our linen has completely degraded within two and a half months,” says Pape. So the harmful impact of linen production has more to do with the structure of the supply chain — i.e., shipping costs, unfair labor practices at some facilities, and wasteful practices and harmful chemicals employed to increase production and save time at large-scale facilities. Apter says that, in recent years in Europe, efforts have been made to bring back more localized supply chains. But for those of us based in North America, even the most sustainably produced linen has to be shipped overseas. Fortunately, linen enthusiasts across the U.S. are hoping to change that.
There are no mills that can produce linen yet, but there are small-scale farmers trying to revive production. Having worked mostly with fibers such as wool and alpaca, Jess Boeke, co-founder of Rust Belt Fibershed, realized there was a need for a warm-weather-friendly textile in the region. When she met farmer Emily Pek, who primarily grows cut flowers at Frayed Knot Farm, the two decided to collaborate on the Rust Belt Linen Project. Pek cleared a small plot of land to see if she could grow flax. It turned out she could. And though this was primarily an experiment Pek hopes can engage community members to put their energy into circular economies and similar projects, the ultimate dream is to create a small-scale facility to manufacture and produce local linen. “With global-supply-chain issues, it’s gonna be harder and harder to get things,” she says. Boeke believes the project can help convince farmers in the region that flax is a worthwhile crop to rotate between wheat and soy crops.
Farther north, on her farm at the Mountain Heart School of Craft in Vermont, Andrea Myklebust has spent years growing flax to eventually develop local linen production on a small scale. It started when she was living in Minnesota, where she discovered 19th-century tools for processing flax used by Dutch and German immigrants who brought them over. More recently, she partnered with the University of Vermont to expand the project into exploring a fellow bast fiber, hemp. Looking back has helped her look forward. “If I want to be humbled by this material, all I have to do is look at examples of what people were able to do with it a long time ago,” she says.
And then there’s Chico Flax, the passion project of Sandy Fisher, a weaver who got connected with Fibershed in 2012, and Durl Van Alstyne. On their farm in Chico, California, they grow flax as a winter crop — and with the help of students from California State University, they’ve actually been able to process enough flax fiber to create wool-linen and cotton-linen blends of yarn produced entirely in the U.S. Like other farmers, they plan to continue developing their crop and engaging their community until there is enough infrastructure in place for a mill.
The momentum is building, and in September 2022, the North American Linen Association was formed. Annette Herboth, the organization’s board president, says its goal is to develop the necessary infrastructure to bring in machinery and a mill. That means, first and foremost, developing a grading system that members can use to evaluate the quality of their flax from seed to fiber to fabric.
Shannon Welsh, NALA’s board director, is the co-founder of Fibrevolution; she and her co-founder, Angela Wartes-Kahl, are growing flax in Oregon. But instead of being used for fiber, most of their crop is being harvested for seeds since, currently, seed has to be purchased — and shipped — from Europe. It’s nowhere near the first time flax has been grown in Oregon. “I didn’t know we used to be leaders in linen production,” says Welsh. “No one ever talks about it.” In the ’90s and early aughts, a now-defunct program at Oregon State University tried and failed to revive the industry, giving Wartes-Kahl and Welsh a foundation — and a locally patented seed — to work with. They’ve already sold seed to farms and are working on developing new, higher-quality varieties.
Wartes-Kahl and Welsh are convinced now is the time to return local linen production. “We have done it. We did it for 70 years,” says Wartes-Kahl. “All over the country, there were linen facilities at any time between 1900 and to around 1965, so it’s history that’s just under the surface, but people haven’t been looking for it. So Shannon I have done our due diligence to uncover a lot and are convinced that it can come back.”
If you want to make the most sustainable choices, look for companies that are transparent about their supply chain. Organic, Fairtrade, and OEKO-TEX certifications are good signs, but they’re also expensive to get, so keep that in mind when evaluating smaller businesses.
Below are some of my personal favorites.