The benefits of linen: Interview with Sue Spencer of the CELC

© European Confederation of Linen and Hemp (CELC) 2015

The Ancient Egyptians, who were said to have used linen as a currency, were really onto something. Light, absorbent and easy to care for, linen has been used in fashion and textiles since the Middle Ages. Turn the clock forward 5,000 years: despite becoming softer and more refined, linen has lost some of the prestige it once enjoyed.

Making the benefits of linen their main concern, the European Confederation of Linen and Hemp (CELC) is the only European agro-industrial organisation representing all stages of the production for linen and hemp. While it sounds largely industrial, the CELC is also responsible for the promotion of the European linen industry in the areas of fashion and lifestyle, and so are well versed in the fabric’s myriad benefits. And so they should be: as the voice of 10,000 companies in 14 European countries, there are many people to speak for.

We spoke with Sue Spencer, CELC’s ‘Masters of Linen’ UK Partner, to learn more about this wonder fabric.

Can you tell us a little about the benefits of European linen?

Flax, the plant from which linen is made, is the only plant textile fibre originating from Europe, and throughout the generations, has come to represent excellence in growing and manufacturing. Thanks to a unique combination of a natural, damp ocean climate, rich soil, and the passion and experience of flax growers through the generations, European linen cultivation cannot be relocated.

Linen is a beautiful fabric with a fabulous texture and drape, but its benefits go beyond the aesthetics. Can you explain some of them?

Linen has so, so many benefits that make it a brilliant choice for using in the home.

Linen is hypoallergenic, anti-allergenic, anti-bacterial, and anti-stress, so it can actually promote regular sleep cycles.

Firstly, its extremely high performance. Flax fibres are long, and so need less fusing to make yarn. This makes them supple and durable, and highly resistant to pilling or distortion… so it stays beautiful for longer.

It is also extremely absorbent and has an active heat-regulating property. Depending on the weather, the pectins in linen can retain water or repel it – up to 20% of their weight – without feeling damp to the touch. A guaranteed sensation of well-being.

Linen is hypoallergenic, anti-allergenic, anti-bacterial, and anti-stress, and so can actually promote regular sleep cycles! The properties inherent in linen have been known since the Middle Ages to help people with skin conditions.

Plus it’s easy to care for. There are really quite a few compelling reasons to choose linen.

Flax undergoes various treatments before it resembles linen. Can you take us through that process?

The growers and scutchers of flax are responsible for choosing the precise moment and day for each action and adapting to unpredictable weather conditions. Their collaboration is vital to optimise each harvest, and this know-how is typified by the men and women involved at all stages of production.

The planting process takes around 100 days, and is harvested in July. It’s “pulled” rather than cut, and is lain in linear swathes across the field to let Mother Nature detach the fibrous skin from the stalk. It’s a natural, beautiful process.

The flax is then “scutched”, where the skin is mechanically removed from the stalk, and combed, which turns the fibres into soft, lustrous ribbons like blond hair. The fibres are then spun into yarn – ready to be woven for fabric.

What else makes linen such a high quality material to work with?

The growing and processing of flax to fibre is 100% sustainable. It requires no irrigation (rain only!) and very little fertiliser or pesticides, so flax growing both respects the environment and preserves the land – as well as the surrounding plants and wildlife. It’s known to improve soil quality, thereby increasing returns of following crops.

Thanks to flax growers, 342,000 tonnes of CO2 gas emissions and 38,000 tonnes of petroleum are avoided.

Linen is ideal for all uses and easily combines with other fibres. It can be used in all densities from ultra-light transparent voiles to the heaviest canvases. It is at the heart of textile innovation thanks to skilled European spinners and weavers creating a variety of finishes, coatings and textures.