This article is based one written by the Irish Linen Guild.
Linen should not be confused with cotton, although its name is often used generically to refer to all household fabrics. In recent years, mostly at the bottom end of the market, real linen has lost out to cheaper cottons, synthetics and man-made fibres. However, linen is still used to make some of the finest quality fabrics.
Linen is ideal for household linens because it increases in strength when wet, allowing it to stand up to the rough and tumble of repeated laundering very well. It can be easily laundered at home and requires no special laundering treatment. It is also paradoxical that at a time when everyone is worried about the environment that linen is being replaced by 'throwaway' yarns. Our natural products are, more and more, being replaced by synthetic substitutes.
Linen is a yarn or fabric made from the cultivated flax plant, named 'Linum usitatissimum'. It is a cellulosic plant fibre, or bast fibre, and it forms the fibrous bundles in the inner bark of the stems of the plant. The plant is an annual that grows to a height of about a metre and the fibres run the entire length of the stem and help hold it upright.
The fibre strands are normally released from the cellular and woody stem tissue by a process known as retting (controlled rotting). In Ireland this was traditionally done in water, rivers, ponds or retting dams.
The original flax to be used for its fibre was the wild, Linum angustifolium. This is not grown commercially, and is found in southwestern Europe, including Britain, the Mediterranean, Madeira and the Canaries. It is considered by some experts to be a distinct species in its own right and the parent of Linum usitatissimum, the cultivated flax.