Late last year we went to Belgium to visit Texture, the museum of linen in Kortrijk. The area stretching across Northern France through Belgium almost to the border of the Netherlands is the most important area of flax production and linen weaving in the world and this museum, opened in 1982, pays homage to the skills and techniques of the many artisans and workers who were pivotal in the art of linen production. The unique climate of the area brought huge prosperity to these regions and the expertise of these growers and weavers is what makes French and Belgian linen so prized among others. At one time over 70% of households in the area around Kortrijk were involved in the production of linen.
Production of cotton overtook the industry in the late 19th century when the weavers and growers found it difficult to keep up with mechanised production but linen production came into its own once again during the second world war when supplies were cut off by the German army.
Over the past few years linen has enjoyed a renaissance and flax is now grown and prized for its unique properties once again.
Here’s what we learned!
Growing and Harvesting Flax
Flax grows best in a cool warm climate and is almost exclusively grown in Northern Europe, Northern Russia and Northern Ireland. Linen fabric is woven from the fibres harvested from inside the stem of the flax plant, one of the oldest cultivated plants in human history.. From seed to harvest, at about three to four feet tall, takes as little as three months.
The plant was pulled up by the root to increase the length of the fibre and laid out in bunches to be washed in the waters of the river Lys. The stalks were left to dry, the outer layers stripped and the inner layers harvested for spinning and weaving. Absolutely nothing is wasted in the harvesting go flax. Short plants are harvested for flaxseed and linseed oil while the longer plants are harvested for fibre. Outer layers of both short and long plants are used to manufacture linoleum and cake for animal feed and various by products are made form the husk such as paper, chip board, rope and materials for the building industry.
Unlike in cotton production, no other chemicals are used to bind the fibres to one another to create the yarn. One of the unique characteristics of linen is its gloriously slubby texture. The longer the flax stem, the longer the fibre, the finer the yarn. The slub that you see is the join of the fibres to one another. The long-staple yarn spun from the longest fibres of the plant is used to create the finest linen with the least slub. The more slub in the texture, the shorter the fibre, the cheaper the product. Great I hear you thinking! But because the production of linen uses these time-honoured methods and relatively small scale production, the fibre is never really cheap.
The process is very similar today, and although much of it has been mechanised, the finest fibres are still harvested from flax pulled out of the earth by hand and the production of linen remains one of the least harmful to our environment. There is absolutely nothing wasted and minimal damage to the environment.
French and Belgian weavers were a cottage industry but their concentration in the area led to the growing body of weaving knowledge and they were able to manufacture some of the finest fabrics. There is a trade association committed to upholding the standards and traditions of the workers and the product they produce, which is doing great things at the moment to ensure that the story of linen is one which keeps being told. Members of the association regularly exhibit their goods at the museum and you can find a list of members here. We saw an amazing array of linen products from super fine damask tablecloths in the old-fashioned style to sue modern linens for the finest hotels.
So there we have it. A whistlestop tour of linen production and manufacture!
These wonderful films show us the whole process of linen manufacture, both by hand and by modern mechanical methods!