I sometimes get questions about linen. I will try to answer those questions here, without getting too technical.
But here are some technical facts anyway
The linen fibers are straight (think of straight hair, the fibers look very much the same). This means they have almost zero flexibility and stretch. They contain natural glue. When spinning the thread, water is added to the fibers and the glue sticks them together, which makes the thread really strong.
1. When buying fabric. It’s preferable that you wash your linen before you make something out of it. Linen shrinks about 5% during the first washing. Some qualities may shrink as much as 10%.
2. To avoid permanent breakage of the fibers you need to pre-soak the fabric. This is easiest to do in a bath tub. Try to lay the fabric down as flat as possible. I always try to go from one side to the other of the tub with the fabric. After all the fabric is down, I fill the tub up with lukewarm water and leave the fabric to soak for 4-5 hours.
This allows the fibers to absorb as much water as possible. The first time linen fibers get wet (after spinning, that is) they will ”permanent” the shape they have when they come into contact with water. If you lay them out flat, they will more or less stay that way in the future. If you crumble them up into a pile in the washing machine, they will break – and get permanent breakage lines.
3. After the soaking you can wash the fabric in a washing machine. The natural glue in the fibers doesn’t like higher temperatures than 70 degrees Celsius. So just to be safe, use a washing program of no more than 60 degrees. If possible, avoid intense spin cycles at the end of the program.
4. Detergent – no optic whitener! Just use normal detergent. And NO softener! Softener ”coats” the fibers and will prevent the linen from absorbing water and cause it to lose its shine. (Softener is also highly allergenic and extremely bad for the environment!) ”But linen is so rough”, you might think. Well… If treated right, linen is soft. Or maybe you should get cotton instead.
5. Drying. A straight fiber wants to dry in a straight position. Drip drying is the best method. Clothespins are your best friends here. If possible, allow the fabric to dry in normal room temperature, or outdoors. If this is not possible, a room with a heating fan will do fine.
Tumble drying is a BIG NO-NO! Why? The heat will dissolve the glue and the fibers will separate – and when separated, they break easier. The fabric eventually becomes ”fluffy” on the surface, like flannel, and its ability to become smooth and shiny, like silk, will be gone forever.
6. A flat fiber is a happy fiber. After drying, mangling is highly recommended! If the drying is done right, the linen will get smooth and shiny like silk. Also, the life of the linen increases every time you do this. A mangle isn’t something that every person owns, and they can sometimes be hard to find. The important thing is that it’s NOT the kind with a heating aggregate attached to it.
In Birka, the archaeological finds tell us that people knew to treat their linen right. Among the finds are a shoulder blade from a moose and a glass smoother. The latter is a round, smooth piece of glass, and when rubbed across the linen, using the hard shoulder blade for support underneath the fabric, the linen fibers flatten and become shiny.
A steaming iron can also be useful. Avoid the steam! Even if the iron often indicates that the highest temperature is for linen, you can turn down the heat a little bit to save the important glue in your fabric.
Use a spray bottle with lukewarm water to dampen your fabric before ironing. Wait until the water has soaked INTO the fabric, and isn’t just lying on top of it. Iron in the same direction as the warp and weft, not bias-wise. Use one hand to hold the edge and stretch the fabric, then work your way towards the hand. Ironing will make your fabric flat and smooth but not especially shiny.
6. Make yourself something nice out of your stunning fabric. Treated right, your fabric will live a long time.
Please tell me if there is something that I’ve missed, something I could explain better or if you would like to share something else concerning linen!