House of Flax
Updated: Feb 11
(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)
Nothing feels better to wear during the summer than cool, lightweight, and breezy linen. My closet runneth over. Linen is also one of my favorite fabrics to use in home furnishings – especially draperies, pillows, and slipcovers. But what is it, exactly?
Linen is a fiber retted from the flax plant and a cousin to jute, ramie, hemp, bark cloth, sisal, coir, sea grass, raffia, and rattan. The grandparents of this family tree are the “bast” fibers that come from woody stems and leaves of plants found in the far north down to the tropics. Linen is one of the oldest textiles dating back thousands of years with dyed remnants found in prehistoric Eurasian caves.
Because of its inherent characteristics, linen is problematic for some people’s liking. Whether clothing or furnishings, the chief complaint comes from its lack of resilience which results in wrinkling. And, although exquisite, draperies made with 100% sheer linen can become limp or brittle depending on the level of humidity in the air. Linen blended with other fibers solves this problem. Another solution is “tow linen”, a dimensional stable, sun rot resistant, firm, and pleasantly slubby fabric. “Line linen” is suitable for upholstery because of its ultra-long fiber (10 – 30 inches), durability, smooth hand, and lint-free characteristics.
Ramie is thought to be the fabled “fine linen” of the Bible and the fabric Egyptians used to wrap mummies. It was also used as ancient currency. It is one of the thinnest of all natural fibers and thus extremely susceptible to abrasion. For this reason, it is good for draperies but not upholstery.
Bark cloth is a nubby material made from the soaked and beaten inner bark of tropical trees. You may not know its name, but have probably seen it made into vintage Hawaiian clothing or table linens.
Because linen is a pricey textile, numerous attempts have been made to substitute it with bleached hemp. But these efforts have been unsuccessful due to hemp’s stiffness and weight. The Italians combined hemp with cotton and silk to weave their famous brocades.
Next to linen, jute is commercially the most used bast fiber. Lower grades are used to make gunny sacks while better grades are woven into burlap or combined with cotton and used for draperies and upholstery. Like ramie, jute does not resist flexing and abrasion and is best left for carpet backing or wall coverings. If dyed, it has a tendency to lose color and return to the original tan.
Sisal is a hardy, thick, ropy fiber that dyes brilliantly but often fades. Since it is impossible to spin into a fine yarn, it is limited to throw rugs, carpets and cordage.
Coir comes from coconut fibers and is similar to sisal and jute but is more coarse. It’s extremely durable, resistant to sunlight and humidity of all kinds. Because of this and its prickly texture, it is used to make exterior door mats.
Grass and palm fibers are woven into baskets and rugs. Sea grass rugs are popular, versatile, easy to maintain, great for pets, and smoother on one’s feet than sisal. Japanese “Tatami” mats and rugs are made by weaving palm fibers with raffia.
Rattan is a bast fiber but often confused with bamboo which is a grass. Rattan has solid cores sturdy enough to be made into furniture frames. Bamboo has weak and brittle hollow cores. Cane is created by peeling off the skin of rattan and wrapping it over solid hardwood poles used in furniture. Wicker is not a plant but a process. Wicker uses thin strips from a rattan vine and is woven together when pliable.
This family of flax and other bast fibers produce a variety of textiles and wares that add interest, texture, color, and a sense of nature to your home – and sometimes your wardrobe.
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