I think, since it’s ‘spring’ with ‘summer’ coming up, that this is going to be about LINEN.

I’m not going to make this ‘research paper’ style…..mostly because it takes so long and this has been long enough coming!


Linen was a major fabric in the Egyptian dynasties: pre-680AD they had what we identify as huckabuck; tabby with a looped pile; herringbone, lozenge and rosette twills; honeycomb weave. Linen has also been found almost everywhere else pre-medieval period, in which most of us are involved. Other weaves are recorded in guild regulation in 1456 and have been found in central and southern Rhineland graves as well as existing weaving manuals from 1700 and on (see www.cs.arizona.edu/patterns/weaving/weavedocs.html ).

There were fine linens with thread counts of 22/20 per centimeter and 22/18 per cm. found in London digs from the 1200’s and extra fine linen gauzes even earlier in Egypt (etc). The Vikings didn’t have to wear burlap-looking linens!! They had the ability to make finer and had the ability to “obtain” finer if they wanted. For Pete’s sake!!….my own grandmother spun, wove and sewed linen on a Pennsylvania farm in the early 1900’s that was a fine shirtweight! (end diatribe)

My grandmother, Alverna Messersmith Learn, gave these to my mother, Mary Learn, when grandma moved down into town from the farm. (l to r):
flax stems, heckle, line flax, spun flax/linen thread.
In the back you can see some ‘unbleached’ linen on bolts, from my store.

Closer view of the flax stems, heckled flax line, and spun flax/linen thread that my grandmother prepared when she was a teenager before her marriage to Harry Learn of Spring Hill, PA.

As I said, my grandmother hand-spun fine shirtweight linen thread, then they wove shirt fabric along with sheet, utility and undergarment linen fabric at home. Boy! look at the even spinning!

This is one of the heckles grandma used. I think this is a ‘coarse’ to ‘medium’ heckle. I’ve seen finer ones, for the final heckling that would make the ‘line’ as fine as the hank grandma made, at the Home Textile Tool Museum in Orwell, PA. This is a fabulous place: www.hometextiletoolmuseum.org for directions to get there, hours and classes available.

The cheaper linen nowadays is usually from the fashion industry. It is left-over after the original clothing run is completed or it was a bolt sent to a design house to make up a sample piece. I’ve had linens that were imported from Italy (usually tow linen), Ireland (longer tow, shorter line, some regular tow) and China (unsure).
China, through subsidizing industries that trade with us and other countries and devaluing their currency, can put linen on the market cheaper than other countries. Some linen I’ve seen from there had a very hard, wire-y feel from being more tightly twisted than usual. I don’t think….not sure but my opinion….that this tight twist is what could be found in most of our periods. I’ve never seen it in 19th c or early 20th c textiles either. I don’t know what length of flax fibers it has.

A linen importer sent me swatches with weights listed:
handkerchief linen is 3 1/2 oz.
shirtweight is about 4 1/2 to 6.3 oz.
bottom weight is over 8 oz.

HOWEVER…… today, just as it was in the middle ages and every age thereafter, those who make and sell fabric can label it any way they want to make it more attractive to the buyer. Industry can call any weight by any name it pleases. The weight doesn’t mean that it has the same size threads or the same thread count….just that a certain yardage weighs a certain amount. Call it an approximation.

The weight depends on thread count per unit (inch or cm) in combination with weight of the thread. And the size of the thread doesn’t tell you all unless you know whether that thread is tow or line. You can have a 16/2 line thread woven at 22 threads/cm that will weigh more than a 16/2 tow thread woven at 22 threads/cm.

A lot of the fashion linens today are made on cotton thread machinery…. cotton fibers are shorter than linen fibers and these machines use short fibers of linen instead of the traditional long fibers we see in those glorious old linen table cloths and vintage clothing. The long fiber linen is “stiffer”…drapes with those large folds and doesn’t get “fuzzy” after a lot of washes. The shorter fiber linen feels softer from the start.

Short fibers have always been used. The shorter pieces that are left in the heckles and combs while processing flax are called ‘tow’. These have been spun and used for slightly lesser quality to downright poor quality fabric. You’ve heard of ‘tow cloth’. The really short stuff and fuzz was used for wrapping, binding and baling cloths. This has been true throughout the middle ages and up until recently. On the 18thc Women’s list the other day someone cited European merchants importing Chinese silks in the 1700s which was ‘baled’ and wrapped in the ‘raw silk’ (waste, short fibers left from the reeling of the cocoons spun and woven for utilitarian wrappings). When the imported silk was all used, the wrappings were also sold as cheap fabric.

How can you tell line from tow from in between? The only way I’ve found is to take individual threads and pull on them. If they pull apart relatively easily, and they look fuzzy or ‘amorphous’, they’re probably tow or mostly so. If they don’t pull apart easily, or break rather than pull apart, and if they look smoother, then they’re probably more line and longer tow. I don’t think there are many places in the world left that use long line flax for thread making.

Now, there’s also something called Sanforizing and Mercerizing. These are chemical and mechanical treatment of the woven fabric….usually cotton but sometimes linen…invented 1856 or so and developed around the turn of the last century and very popular through the 1950s.. I’m not up to going into those but a good 20-40 year old textiles text book can explain the processes well. One gives a permanent press and shine quality to the fabric and the other gives a ‘mechanical’ stretch, caused by a (mostly) permanent crimp in the weft threads. I’ve only seen it in two fabrics since I started in 1988. One is 2033, a black with a sheen. It has the ‘crenellated’ looking crimp in the weft that isn’t lost in the wash.

LINENS ‘SHOWCASED’. now you didn’t think you’d get away without a sales pitch, did you? 😉

I’ve updated the linen page with a couple more colors….still working on some of them. I’ve added thread counts to a couple more. I can tell you right off the bat that most of the fashion colors are tow linens. This is not a bad thing…you just have to know how to treat them. DO NOT PUT THEM IN THE DRYER or they will end up mostly in the lint trap. They will wear out faster as you throw more of the fiber away with each drying. If you can’t have an outdoor clothesline, then just hang them inside for drying. When they’re still damp, pull the fabric to pull out most of the wrinkles. When they’re dry, pull the fabric diagonally to get rid of the stiffness…..or just wear them a couple minutes and the stiffness will disappear.