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by Elena Tran
June 18, 2020
With such an abundance of polyester and cotton fabrics available everywhere, it’s easy to overlook the oldest fabric in the world, the humble and noble linen. But it wasn’t so humble in ancient Egypt and up to the First World War when linen had a very prominent place in the fashion world. Because it is so absorbent, silky and cool against the skin, and at the same time extremely durable, it was the best choice for undergarments and clothing for hot and humid weather. In ancient Egypt, linen was considered a symbol of light and purity. The clothing for the social elite, for example, was made from the finest linen that was almost transparent. (Smithsonian)
In the middle ages, garments were considered a considerable investment. Particularly linen clothing was very labour-intensive and expensive to make. In other words, there wasn't a closet full of clothes in the middle-class medieval family. It is interesting to note that researchers found that good quality clothing was even given to the relatives in the medieval wills. (Singman)
Linen continued to be associated with wealth and refinement during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. It played a very important role in fashion. Fine linen undergarments, lace, handkerchiefs, and bedding were very popular. (Clive Hallett)
We now think of linen as a cloth for a table cloth and kitchen towels. However, 70 percent of linen is still used today for clothing. Imagine the material that is eco friendly and sustainable fabric, easy to work with, has excellent drape, texture and haute couture look that gets better with age. True, it does have that unmistakable crimp, but it could be exactly what you are looking for to give that special look and feel to your creations. After all, linen is all-natural and vegan, made from the stems of a flax plant. This plant is indigenous to Western Europe because of specific soil requirements for growing the flax plant, so it’s no wonder that the oldest manufacturers of linen are in Italy, Belgium, France, Germany and Ireland to this date. (Clive Hallett)
When considering linen fabric for your design, it’s important to understand the advantages and limitations of this amazing fabric. Fashion linen fabrics are typically broken down into light-weight, medium-weight and heavy-weight. To help you choose the right fashion linen, I put together a table of the most common linen types that I worked with and their uses.
Use in fashion
up to 210 gsm
Fine, light, glazed look, beautiful drape
Light shirts, tops, dresses, resort wear
210 – 315 gsm
Crisp, soft feel, luxury look, structured, beautiful drape
Suits, summer jackets, shirts, dresses, trousers, shorts
315 – 700 gsm and up
Open weave, body, excellent drape, beautiful texture, may feel coarse and thick, very structured
Suits, jackets, trousers, structured garments in general
There are also blends of linen and silk, linen and cotton and linen and wool. Every time linen is blended with another fibre, it changes it characteristics, particularly the tell-tale crimp. I always suggest getting samples first before committing to the fabric for the design.
Working with linen is very easy. Make sure to sponge or pre-shrink in cold water before cutting unless the garment is meant to be dry-cleaned. When ready, the cutting and sewing parts are very rewarding. Remember to iron after each step and use plenty of steam, linen loves it.
Clive Hallett, Amanda Johnston. Fabric for Fashion. The Complete Guide. Laurence King Publishing, 2014.
Singman, Jeffrey Lee. The Middle Ages: Every Day Life in Medieval Europe. New York: Sterling, 2013.
Smithsonian. Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style. New York: DK Publishing, 2012.
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