A washing guide for linen

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.

Pictures by: Markus Andersson
RinglaRingla - FEL-2

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! /Maria

36 reaktioner på ”A washing guide for linen

  1. Thank you for good advice! I must admit that I don’t soak my linnen before I wash it, but I’ll try it the next time. And I’m all with you on the mangling! I always mangle my linnen after the first wash and before cutting in it. That makes it so much easier to cut it straight on the grain. Totally worth it!🙂

  2. I have learned something new, thank you Maria! We still have a beautiful old stone mangle in our house, from now on I will start using it a bit more🙂

  3. Oh, I wish they would teach even a portion of this in school – both textile work and home economics would’ve been good for this but nooo..:/ At least there are more apt teachers outside school – thank you.
    Would love to read similar guides for other fabrics/fibers too😉

    • I’m glad you like it! This is knowledge I’ve learned at my textile education, but I think everyone have use for it. I promise to make one for wool too!
      /maria

  4. Thanks a lot. All of it (almost) rings a bell in our common educational past, but you manage to put it together very neat. I think it’s because you tell why the linen has to be treated in those different ways and what happens if I don’t follow your advice.

    A little extra material: if you have washed/shrunk smaller pieces of linen, you can let them dry flat. It works on the metallic surface next to the kitchen sink or if you’re very happy you can use a washing table wich is like a sink but muuuuuch larger (sometimes at big as 2,5×1,5m) and only about 10 cm deep. Lay down the soaking wet linen flat on the surface and use the hand or maybe a window scraper to force the water out of the fabric. Same technique as when ironing, follow the threads/fibres, do not go diagonally.

    When the piece of linen is flat, all threads are straight and most of the water is gone; leave it to dry, at least over night. It’s almost as you don’t need to mangle it before sewing. It’s the

    I’m planning to try it out; handwash and flat dry on my next coiff to see if and how it will compete to wash and mangle. And if I manage to gather the energy, I’ll make some notes of it on my blog 😉

  5. And I lost a sentence in my comment, I meant to add that this is the way to wash embroidered, crochetted and knitted finer works as tablecloths and of course lace.

    • Hi!
      Blood is tricky. I usually try to rinse the linen, direct, in cold water. It needs to be cold, otherwise the protein in the blood coagulate in the fibres and then it will stick there. But when the damage is done, once just have to work from there. I use gall soap. I rub the soap over the wet fabric. Leave it for one hour or two. Then I wash it in the washing machine on 60 degrees C. I use normal detergent. No softener. If it doesn’t help, I just try to do it once more. Blood is something that eventually will wash out, but it can take up to 10 -15 washes. Sooner or later your linen will go back to its normal state.
      Hope that helps you!
      /maria

    • Saliva is also good for getting blood out of cloth. Spit on the stain, let the fabric absorb it and rinse in clean water before washing as usual. I’ve heard there is something in a persons saliva that dissolves ones own blood, so that my saliva works well on my own blood-stains but not as well on a stain with someone elses blood, but I don’t know if there’s any truth to that.

  6. Ping: Fabric Choices for 19th C. Costumes – Part 1 – Linen — Historical Sewing |19th C Costuming | Online Costume Classes | Historical Costume

  7. Kjempefin artikkel!🙂 Kan jeg få lov til å bruke den på nettsidene våre? Jeg lenker selvfølgelig tilbake til deg.

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  11. Can you tell me more about the adhesive gum that linen has naturally in the fibers? Tumble drying has always made my linens scratchy, and it’s because of the fragility along it’s length. Anyway, curous about the gum or adhesive in it, and how to preserve it or restore it as a treatment after poor handling!

    • The scratchyness may come from the broken fibres. I would iron the linen after washing, if you don’t have a mangle or have sewn something out of it already, to flatten out the fibres. A broken fibre is always gonna be broken. But you can help it by pressing down the broken ends.

      Hope I did answer your question. It’s still quite early here😉
      Maria

      • My next question is about the temprature during washing. There is some sort of gum, or adhesive inside the spun yarns? I thought linens could be boiled.

      • Linen get soft from being boiled. That’s because the glue devolves in hot temperature. This is something that people did before with fabric they used in diapers. A broken fibre is actually better to suck up water/ urine. That’s why they boiled some fabric really hot. But it was old outdated fabrics that became diapers. A new fabric will get permanently destroyed from being boiled.
        Of course you can cook your linen if you would like that effect, but it will not live as long as max 60 degrees C once.
        /maria

  12. hello,
    I bought 100% linen fabric that looked great and had a nice touch at the Store.
    After washing it on 30 degrees, at a gentle wash, it came out of the machine with allot (!) of little fibers all over the fabric. The floor got covered with fibers too.
    If someone can please explain to me what happened?
    Thank you very much.
    alona

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