How is Linen Yarn Made?

Flax. This humble plant is amazingly versatile, whether it's used in food, drying oil for oil paintings or in textiles, otherwise known as "linen".

You might have noticed that linen is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment and it's no wonder. Clothing made from this fibre has incredible drape, breathability and is cool to wear in the summer heat.

Not only that: flax doesn't require pesticides to grow, making it one of the most eco-friendly fibres you can use. Did you know that it is 2-3 times stronger and smoother than cotton too? There are so many reasons to try linen this summer.

How is Linen Yarn Made?

In today's blog post, I will be exploring how linen yarn is made, from field to fibre to yarn. I hope that it encourages you to experiment with this fantastic fibre yourself!

Drying Flax for Linen Production. Photo: Vilseskogen

Growing Flax for Linen

Flax is a tall, slender plant that is pretty easy to grow, although it does best in cool, humid climates. It is grown all over Europe, but the best flax for linen is said to be produced in Belgium and Ireland.

When the stems start to turn yellow and the seeds turn brown (this normally takes 100 days), that's when you know it's time to harvest.

Rather than cutting the stems at their base, the plants are uprooted, which keeps the length of the fibre intact and stops it from drying out too quickly. Whilst there are machines that are able to do this, the finest flax is still harvested by hand.

Once the flax has been harvested, the stems are dried in the open for several weeks, as shown in the photograph above.

Processing the Flax Fibre

Once the stalks are dry, the seeds are removed through a process called "threshing", which involves crushing the seed pods until the seeds become free. The leaves are also removed, using a course comb.

The fibre that becomes linen can be found inside the stem, however, it can only be removed via "retting". This process breaks down the woody bark surrounding the delicate fibre so that it can be removed without getting damaged.

Retting can be done with either water or chemicals. Whilst chemical retting is much faster, it is better for the fibre (and the environment!) to use water or dew.

When retting is completed, the stalks are broken down to release the fibre. It is then combed and straightened in preparation for spinning into yarn. The combing separates the short fibres from the long ones; the shorter ones will be used in sturdier, coarser fabrics, whilst the long ones will be used in fine, linen yarn.

Spinning Flax Fibre into Linen Yarn. Photo: Dave Emerson

Spinning Flax into Linen Yarn

Traditionally, linen yarns are spun using a distaff, which is a long pole that attaches to a spinning wheel to stop the fibres from tangling.

However, it is entirely possible to spin with flax without using one of these - you just have to work with small handfuls at a time.

Linen is usually spun very finely and then plied to make a thicker yarn. The yarn is then boiled to clean it and make it slightly softer and shinier.

Two very different linen based yarns. Left: Blacker Yarns' Lyonesse DK. Right: Quince & Co's Sparrow.

Knitting with Linen

My experiences with knitting linen yarn in the past have been mixed. I often found it too harsh on my hands and the resulting fabric didn't have the softness I had hoped for.

However, over the last few months, I decided to try knitting with linen again, based on the recommendations of knitters I trust and gosh! My experience now is totally different.

Lyonesse DK by Blacker Yarns

The first yarn I tried was Blacker Yarns' Lyonesse DK, which is made from a beautiful blend of organic, Belgian linen and Falkland Island Corriedale/Merino wool.

The resulting fabric is very smooth and soft with AMAZING stitch definition. It holds it's block really well too, due to the wool content in the yarn. I used this in my Split Stone sweater design and I've found it to be the perfect transitional piece. 

Sparrow by Quince & Co

I decided to dive in fully with the second yarn I tried; Quince & Co's Sparrow. I was nervous about using a 100% linen yarn for the reasons I mentioned above, however, I had heard so many amazing things about Sparrow that I figured it was worth a try.

Spun from organic flax produced in Belgium, Sparrow is of very high-quality. Knitting with it was an absolute pleasure. It is surprisingly soft, even before washing, but this only increases with wash and wear. By this time next year, it is going to feel divine. I have used this yarn in my upcoming t-shirt design called Fragment (get a sneak preview here) and I can't get enough of it.

One of the things that I love about this yarn in particular is that it is so low-maintenance. You can chuck it in the washing machine with the rest of your laundry and it will feel better than ever. You can apparently put it in the dryer too, although I haven't done that myself.

How do you feel about linen?

Are you a linen lover or do you avoid using it? If so, has learning a bit more about how the yarn is made changed how you feel about it? Share your experiences with using linen in the comments section below. I always love to hear from you!