From the Victoria and Albert Museum's " Fashioned From Nature " exhibition.
Linen's diverse use and dominance in Western fashion is no surprise. The rich soil and frequent rain of Northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands uniquely suit the flax plant, resulting in the highest quality flax and linen. While other countries, including China and Canada, do grow flax, the need for irrigation, fertilisers, and pesticides negates many of the plant's considerable environmental benefits.
Today, the European Union grows 70% of all flax. Linen is the original sustainable fibre – when grown in its ideal geographical zone, the cultivation of flax produces no waste. All parts of the flax plant are used: the long and short fibres and seeds are made into textiles, paper, varnish, oil, animal fodder and bio-materials. After the plants have been pulled (harvested), the root remnants fertilise and clean the soil, thereby improving the productivity of soil for 6 to 7 years.
Growing flax requires no irrigation, no fertilisers and no herbicides and pesticides, and therefore does not pollute rivers or groundwater. Flax even retains 3.7 tons of CO2 per hectare per year. From seed to fabric, sustainability characterises the production process of flax: Sowing: growing flax takes around 100 days.
When grown for its fibre, flax seeds are sown close together to encourage the plant to grow upward rather than sideways, which maximises the length of fibres. Pulling: the plants are pulled when they are between 90 and 120 cm high. They are then gathered into bundles and dried for 2 weeks. Retting: the retting process separates the fibres from the plant. If flax is grown in the optimal geographical location, the fibres are separated through dew-retting in which thin layers of flax are spread out across grass fields to decompose. Water-retting is undertaken in drier climates, during which process flax is submerged in pools or water streams. The rotting of the plants pollutes the water streams, thereby undoing some of flax’s green footprint. After the retting process, the flax is fully dried. Scutching: the straw around the fibres is broken and removed. Combing: the flax is combed to remove any remaining pieces of straw and to align the fibres. The flax is then spun and woven into linen.