How Linen is Made
Linen is yarn, and fabric made from flax fibres. Before linen is produced, the fibre is first removed from the flax plant.
Linen manufacturing is a complicated and lengthy process which requires great skill at each stage of production:
- Cultivating Flax
- Rippling & Retting
- Scutching & Hackling
- Fabric manufacture (including design, weaving, dyeing & finishing, cutting, hemming and packaging).
Linen is a natural yarn or fabric which comes from the fibres of the stalk of the flax plant (linum usitatissimum or "most useful linen"). The soils most suitable for flax growth are rich loams, without too much clay. It has a single slender stem, with no branches apart from those bearing its flowers. The plant is sown in April, produces delicate blue flowers in June and harvesting is in August. The subtle intensity of the violet-blue flax flower is a sign of the finest fibres which are used to produce Thomas Ferguson Irish Linen. Other varieties of flax have a pinkish white blossom and produce poorer fibres and yarns.
There are three degrees in the ripening of the flax grown to produce linen: green, yellow and brown. The yellow has proved the most suitable for fibre production. Pulling the flax too early - green - produces very fine but weak fibres. On the other hand , in overripe flax - brown - the stems are strong but brittle but produce a high proportion of undesirable short fibres ("'tow"). When the flax is yellow, the fibres are long and supple, and therefore ideal for further processing
To get the most from the fibre, the textile flax is not cut, but pulled from the ground to keep the long, full length of the fibres which run the entire length of the plant (80/120cm). After this when the flax is dry, the seeds get removed, and it is then retted.
This is where the seeds get taken off the plant. Rippling involved combing the seeds off with a coarse comb.
The flax fibres are held together in the stems by woody material and cellular tissue, and retting is where the de-seeded crop of flax straw is given a controlled chemical or biological treatment to make the fibre bundles more easy to separate from the woody part of the stem.
Flax is water-retted, dew-retted or chemically-retted. Water-retting is where the flax plants get pulled, tied in sheaves and put in special dams or ponds for one to two weeks. This method can cause pollution. Today this method is seldom used in Europe, and water retting is more normally carried out in controlled conditions in tanks.
With dew-retting the flax straw gets spread on the ground after pulling and left in the fields for 2 to 8 weeks, depending on the weather. This is the most common method in Western Europe, and is less expensive than water-retting in tanks.
Scutching & Hackling
This is a mechanical operation which, by breaking and beating the flax straw, separates the textile fibres in the plant stem from the woody matter which is then used for the manufacture of chipboard. No part of the flax plant gets wasted. Fibres are then hackled (combed) to separate long line and short tow fibres. Line fibres then go through a process of drafting and doubling, until a rove (a slightly twisted sliver of flax fibre) gets formed. They then undergo the wet spinning process. Line fibres produce fine, strong yarn. Short tow fibres are dry spun and a heavy, coarse yarn results, ideal for use as furnishing fabrics, heavier apparel and knitwear.
This rove is then spun into a yarn but during this process it gets soaked in warm water, which softens the natural gummy substances contained in the yarn and permits the individual fibrils within each fibre to slide over each other, thus producing a very fine and regular yarn. This gets called "wet spinning".
This is the stage where Thomas Ferguson gets involved. You are now invited to take a factory tour which tells the story of design, weaving, specialist cutting, bleaching, dyeing and finishing into Thomas Ferguson Irish Linen Cloth. You can view a virtual tour of our factory on our website, or book a real tour online.
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