Is Linen/Flax Eco Friendly & Sustainable For Clothing, Fabric & Textiles?

We’ve already put together guides about some of the most eco friendly fibres and fabrics, and the least eco friendly fibres and fabrics.

Linen (from the flax plant) is seen as one of the more eco friendly of them.

In this short guide, we look at how sustainable and eco friendly Linen really is according to different measures.

 

Summary – How Sustainable & Eco Friendly Is Linen/Flax For Clothing, Fabric & Textiles?

What Linen/Flax Is

The fibres of the taller flax plant are used to make linen 

There’s also a shorter flax plant that uses the flax seeds for flaxseed and linseed oil

Different variety flax fibers are used for different types of fabrics (coarse, and fine)

There’s many products that can be made of linen

Flax is a rare product which represents less than 1% of all textile fibers consumed worldwide.

Flax is grown in many parts of the world,

Some of the top quality and finest linns are produced in parts of Europe

In recent years bulk linen production has moved to Eastern Europe and China

Russia is currently the major flax cultivating nation

Canada is the largest producer of flaxseed

Machines manufacture a lot of linen these days, but the finest linens are still hand manufactured.

Where and how flax is grown, and how fibers are retted, dressed, and yarns spun and weaved (the entire manufacturing process), impacts the quality and fineness of the linen

 

Sustainability & Eco Friendliness Of Linen/Flax

The flax plant produces the flax fibres used to make linen.

This is a natural plant that generally has a more eco friendly growing and harvesting stage than say for example cotton, or compared to the making a synthetic fibre like polyester.

According to some reports, it uses less water and uses less energy than the production of cotton.

It is also good at storing carbon, is good for soil health, and needs little pesticides or fertilizer

Hemp might be a better yielding plant than flax per area of land, and the flax plant is generally used effectively in that no part of the flax part is wasted.

The processing stage of linen might be eco friendly if the linen is hand, water or mechanically retted, and the linen isn’t bleached or dyed.

Having said that, linen that is chemically retted, and heavily bleached and dyed, with no closed loop process in place to capture water and re-use bleaches, dyes and chemicals, may not be not very eco friendly and sustainable at the processing stage.

Pure white linen also uses heavy bleaching.

Bleached and chemically treated linen might be comparable to something like bamboo which is also a natural fibre that can include synthetic chemicals in the processing stage.

The finest and best linen is quite expensive because it takes time and care to make. 

Because linen fiber can be easy to break, machines have to run slower in spinning and weaving, which can increase costs and lower efficiency of production

Linen also doesn’t have as wide of a use as a fibre like cotton because it crinkles and scrunches easily – this limits it’s versatility and practicality of use. 

Linen is more of a niche fibre than a fibre that can be produced at scale and in high production levels, like cotton for example.

There is also the option for organic linen that uses naturally derived chemicals and not synthetic ones.

Some sources indicate that for overall sustainability, it might be worth looking at GOTS certified cotton, recycled cotton, 100% natural linen, and companies that are very transparent with their supply and production processes, or have a range of recognized sustainability certifications across various stages of their supply/production process (growing, production, dying, bleaching, finishing, weaving, and so on), with TENCEL’s lyocell and modal fibres being one potential example of this.

But, there’s also the consumer usage, maintenance and waste/recycling stages to consider as well.

Some bamboos and hemps could be reasonably sustainable when sustainably/responsibly grown, and combining that with closed loop processes, naturally derived production chemicals, and similarly more natural/organic and eco friendly post-growing processes and chemicals used.

 

The above summary and the information found in this guide is a generalisation only.

* Note that Linen/flax fibre growing/farming, and processing may differ by country, especially between the first world and developing world countries.

* Different conditions, climates, soils, farming technology, farming methods and other factors can impact how well the flax fibre grows, and different factories and processing plants for Linen have different procedures.

These factors and others can impact the final sustainability and eco friendliness of any particular product.

There’s also the social impact, economics and practicality to consider.

Just because something is eco friendly and sustainable to produce – it doesn’t mean that it is good for employment, profitable or even practical to produce (for businesses and workers) or use (for consumers).

So, there can be a weighing up of product priorities, preferences (for buyers, sellers, and society) and conflicts of interest to consider (political and corporate agendas can sometimes play a part too for example). 

 

What Is Linen, & What Is Flax?

Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant. 

Flax (also known as common flax or linseed) is a plant.

The fibres of flax are used to make linen. 

Flax seeds from the flax plant are also used for flaxseed or linseed oil

– wikipedia.org

 

There are two distinct flax plants – the linseed variety (grown for oil) which is shorter, and the flax variety (grown for fiber) which is taller with less branches

– decktowel.com

 

Flax Plant Fiber Traits

Linen is a bast fiber.

Flax fibers vary in length from about 25 to 150 mm (1 to 6 in) and average 12–16 micrometers in diameter.

There are two varieties: shorter tow fibers used for coarser fabrics and longer line fibers used for finer fabrics.

Flax fibers can usually be identified by their “nodes” which add to the flexibility and texture of the fabric.

The cross-section of the linen fiber is made up of irregular polygonal shapes which contribute to the coarse texture of the fabric.

– wikipedia.org

 

Production Of Linen/Flax

Total Production

You can read more about the production share of linen/flax compared to other fibres in this guide.

 

Countries That Grow & Produce The Most Linen/Flax

Canada, along with China, the US, Russia and India are some of the largest producers.

But, top quality linen in produced in specific regions of the world.

 

Canada is the largest producer of flaxseed in the world, representing about 40 percent of world production.

It is grown on the Canadian prairies for linseed oil, which is used as a drying oil in paints and varnish and in products such as linoleum and printing inks.

When combined, China, the United States and India account for another 40 percent of world production.

– agmrc.org

 

Flax is grown in many parts of the world, but top quality flax is primarily grown in Western European countries and Ukraine.

In recent years bulk linen production has moved to Eastern Europe and China, but high quality fabrics are still confined to niche producers in Ireland, Italy and Belgium, and also in countries including Poland, Austria, France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Britain and Kochi in India.

High quality linen fabrics are now produced in the United States for the upholstery market and in Belgium. 

Russia is currently the major flax cultivating nation.

– wikipedia.org

 

Canada, Russia, Ukraine, France, Argentina, Italy, Germany, UK, Holland and Belgium are the top producing countries of flax

– textilefashionstudy.com

 

A study in 2014 indicated that the total flax production all over the world is almost 2.65 million tonnes annually

The top flax producing countries in the world by production in tonnes are:

Canada – 872,000 (production in tonnes)

Kazakhstan – 419,957

China – 387,088

Russia – 365,088

USA – 161,750

India – 141, 000

France – 64,000

Ukraine – 25,000

Argentina – 16,000

Italy – 15,300

– worldblaze.in

 

80% of the world’s production of scutched flax fibers are originated from Europe, and France is the world leader.

Flax is a rare product which represents less than 1% of all textile fibers consumed worldwide.

– mastersoflinen.com

 

Where Is The Finest & Best Quality Linen Made?

The finest and best quality linen might be found in parts of Europe – Belgium and France as just a few examples.

 

The best quality linen is retted in slow-moving natural water sources such as streams and rivers. 

The highest quality linen in the world is retted in Belgium in the River Lys

Irish linen is the best known and most valuable, though most of the flax used for manufacturing is grown elsewhere and imported into the country for processing

European linens are the next finest, with the French producing the whitest and most delicate of textiles.

Scotch linen is generally considered of medium quality, and German linen quality ranges from good to poor.

Flax is perhaps most widely cultivated in Russia and China, though the fibers tend to be of poorer quality than their European counterparts.

Smaller flax production centers exist in Egypt, Northern Italy, parts of Canada and the northern United States.

– decktowel.com

 

What Is Linen Used For?

Many products are made of linen: aprons, bags, towels (swimming, bath, beach, body and wash towels), napkins, bed linens, tablecloths, runners, chair covers, and men’s and women’s wear.

Linen uses range across bed and bath fabrics (tablecloths, bath towels, dish towels, bed sheets); home and commercial furnishing items (wallpaper/wall coverings, upholstery, window treatments); apparel items (suits, dresses, skirts, shirts); and industrial products (luggage, canvases, sewing thread). 

It was once the preferred yarn for hand sewing the uppers of moccasin-style shoes (loafers), but has been replaced by synthetics.

– wikipedia.org

 

How Is Flax Grown, & Linen Made/Manufactured From Flax Fibres?

Generally, the flax plants are grown and harvested.

At that point, the fiber is separated from the plant with retting, the flax is then dressed, spun and the linen yarn is weaved – and linen is made.

Machines manufacture a lot of linen these days, but the finest linens are still hand manufactured.

You can read more about growing flax, and the manufacturing process of linen from flax fibres in this madehow.com resource, and also this decktowel.com resource

 

How Much Water Does Linen/Flax Use For Growing & Manufacturing?

The production of linen fabric uses five to twenty times less water … than the production of cotton or other synthetic fabrics.

– purelinen.com.au 

 

The flax plant is quite hardy and grows without the use of … irrigation

– biome.com.au

 

Carbon Footprint & Energy Use Of Linen/Flax

Linen/Flax Individually

One hectare of flax can retain 3.7 tonnes of CO2 . 

– trustedclothes.com

 

Compared To Other Fibres

The production of linen fabric uses five to twenty times less … energy than the production of cotton or other synthetic fabrics.

– purelinen.com.au 

 

newfrontierdata.com has a good infographic that shows the carbon footprint of different natural fibre crops, such as hemp, flax, and jute.

Hemp has a similar carbon footprint to flax, with jute having a slightly higher carbon footprint than both.

 

How Much Pesticide & Fertilizer Does Flax Fibre Use To Grow?

The flax plant is quite hardy and grows without the use of pesticides …

– biome.com.au

 

Farming flax requires few fertilizers or pesticides.

– wikipedia.org

 

Flax/Linen, & Soil Health & Land Degradation

Flax is easy to incorporate into modern crop rotation cycles which prevents soil depletion.

– jenniferfukushima.com

 

According to the European Confederation of Linen and Hemp, flax respects the environment and preserves the land. 

– trustedclothes.com

 

… each year one hectare of flax retains 3.7 tons of CO2. And this is not the least of its it’s advantages.

Flax has proven itself as an excellent break crop: renewed in rotation every 6 to 7 years, flax naturally produces optimal soil quality, thereby increasing returns on the following crops

– mastersoflinen.com

 

The Yield Of Flax/Linen, & Fabric Efficiency

… the seed takes 100 days to grow and reach 1 meter when it flowers.

But harvesting and retting can take place some months after flowering

– jos-vanneste.com

 

[for flax plants] The yield on this particular 8-acre field was rather good: a harvest of 203 bales in total, weighing approximately 300 kg each.

Here, the farmers harvested a total amount of 60,9 tons, or 7,6 tons per hectare.

A yield of 7,5 tons per hectare (= 2,47 acres) is considered a good yield. 

– blog.libecohomestores.com

 

Hemp has a fiber yield that averages between 485 – 809 lbs., compared to flax, which averages just 323 – 465 lbs. on the same amount of land. 

– oecotextiles.wordpress.com

 

[During the weaving process of flax/linen fibres] … Linen fiber is inelastic and easy to break in the production process, so great care must be taken when spinning and weaving.  

As a result, these machines have to run at lower speeds, giving lesser yields and increasing costs [compared to cotton]

– montaukstyle.com

 

How Effectively Is A Flax Plant Used?

Whilst only the very best fibres are used by the Linen industry, no part of the flax plant is wasted; the left over linseeds, oil, straw and fibre are used in everything from lino and soap to cattlefeed and paper.

Few products are so efficiently used as flax.

– purelinen.com.au 

 

How Many Chemicals Does Linen Use In The Processing Stage?

Flax fibres need to be separated from the plant – this can be done with water, or chemically.

If done chemically, there are usually toxic chemicals used.

 

The fibres first have to be naturally degraded from the plant. 

This is achieved through “retting“.

Retting is the process of bacteria to decomposing the pectin that binds the fibres together. 

Natural retting usually takes place in tanks and pools, or directly in the fields.

There are also chemical retting methods; these are faster, but are typically more harmful to the environment and to the fibres themselves.

– trustedclothes.com

 

Pure white linen is created by heavy bleaching.

– wikipedia.org

 

Pollution Of Land, Air & Water By Flax & Linen Growing & Processing

It depends on the quality and type of linen made.

For example, very high quality non bleached or dried linen that is hand or machine processed (instead of with chemicals) is going to be better for the environment than cheaper and quicker made bleached and dyed linen.

 

Generally, flax growing is not very polluting compared to say regular cotton growing which uses a lot of pesticide and fertilizer that can get into the soil, air and water.

Linen that uses chemicals retting, bleaches and dyes and doesn’t capture the water, and re-use the bleaches and dyes (and allows them into the water and dumps the water), could be quite polluting.

 

Impact Of Flax/Linen On Humans & Human Health

During the growing of flax, there probably isn’t as much risk to human health because of a lesser use of pesticides compared to regular cotton.

But, flax that is chemically retted may present risk to those who work in flax processing factories.

A linen product that is heavily bleached or dyed may also present a risk to someone that is allergic to those chemicals.

 

Impact Of Flax/Linen On Animals & Wildlife

If chemicals are released into the environment via water waste at the production stage of linen, this has potential to impact aquatic and other wildlife.

 

Biodegradability Of Linen

… made from flax plant fibres … when untreated (i.e. not dyed), it [linen] is fully biodegradable

– goodonyou.eco

 

Economic Impact Of Linen/Flax

Value Of The Flax Industry

In value terms, global flax fiber imports stood at $682M in 2017 (kuam.com)

 

Economic Benefits Of Natural Fibre Crops In General

But, one source indicates that fibres coming from crops and other plant based fibres provide a number of potential economic and practical benefits.

Plant and crop based fibres may be the only type of fibre that can be produced in some regions of the world, and might offer other benefits too, such as being able to be grown alongside or in rotation with another plant, crop, or other agricultural product.

 

Option For Organic Flax/Linen

Flax can be grown organically as well.

 

Flax is also grown on organic converted farms

Its culture is certified without synthetic products (fertilizers, herbicidesfungicides and regulators are prohibited), which ensures a complete absence of residues of these products in the fiber and the soil after harvesting. 

Todaynearly 200 acres of organic flax are grown in France and international specifications ensures the traceability of fibers from organic flax cultivation to final consumer (GOTS label).

– mastersoflinen.com

 

Sources

1. http://purelinen.com.au/purelinen-facts 

2. https://www.biome.com.au/blog/linen-sheets-vs-organic-cotton-sheets-vs-hemp-sheets/ 

3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flax 

4. https://www.jenniferfukushima.com/pages/materials 

5. https://www.trustedclothes.com/blog/2016/01/27/farming-flax-for-organic-linen/ 

6. http://www.mastersoflinen.com/eng/lin/3-ecosysteme-lin?platform=hootsuite 

7. https://www.jos-vanneste.com/flax 

8. https://montaukstyle.com/blogs/news/why-linen-is-more-expensive-than-cotton 

9. https://blog.libecohomestores.com/the-linen-craft/harvesting-flax/ 

10. https://oecotextiles.wordpress.com/2016/08/31/hemp-vs-linen/  

11. https://goodonyou.eco/how-sustainable-is-linen/ 

12. https://econation.co.nz/linen/ 

13. http://www.madehow.com/Volume-4/Linen.html

14. https://newfrontierdata.com/cannabis-insights/ask-our-experts-carbon-emissions-of-hemp-products/

15. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linen

16. https://www.decktowel.com/pages/how-linen-is-made-from-flax-to-fabric 

17. http://textilefashionstudy.com/top-flax-growing-countries-of-the-world-linen-fiber-production/  

18. https://www.worldblaze.in/largest-flax-producing-countries/ 

19. http://www.mastersoflinen.com/eng/lin/1-la-filiere-de-proximite 

20. https://www.agmrc.org/commodities-products/grains-oilseeds/flax-profile 

21. http://www.kuam.com/story/39331201/global-flax-fiber-market-2018-2025-industry-report-market-size-analysis-forecast-and-trends

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