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Raw Materials Linen

Linen is a textile made from the fibers of the flax plant. Linen is laborious to manufacture, but the fiber is very strong, absorbent and dries faster than cotton. Garments made of linen are valued for their exceptional coolness and freshness in hot and humid weather.

Linen (Source: LinenVogue)

Raw Materials

All that is needed to turn flax fiber into linen, and then spin and weave the linen fibers into linen fabric is the cellulose flax fiber from the stem of the flax plant. The process for separating the fibers from the woody stalk can use either water or chemicals, but these are ultimately washed away and are not part of the finished material.All that is needed to turn flax fiber into linen, and then spin and weave the linen fibers into linen fabric is the cellulose flax fiber from the stem of the flax plant. The process for separating the fibers from the woody stalk can use either water or chemicals, but these are ultimately washed away and are not part of the finished material.

Design

The manufacture of linen yarn requires no special design processes. All that has to be determined prior to manufacturing is the thickness of the yarn to be spun. That will depend on the grade of linen in production and the demands of the customer.

European flax wheel used to spin flax into linen thread.
(From the collects of Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan.)

This is a European "flax wheel" used to spin flax into linen thread within the home. Folklore tells us that it was brought by Henry Ford's Irish grandmother to the New World; it was one of the few family keepsakes Ford had from his Irish ancestors. In fact, it was not unusual for the Scots or Irish to bring such wheels to this country. The British Isles have a long and proud linen tradition, and even decades after others abandoned linen production for cotton in the New World the Irish and Scots here tenaciously clung to their linen-making traditions.

Ford's grandmother placed unspun flax on the tall, vertical, turned distaff and then push the treadle with her foot to power the wheel. The bobbin and flyer mounted horizontally in the center of the wheel would spin the flax and wind it on the bobbin at the same time. The rather small wheel below the bobbin required the spinner to treadle rafher fast to keep it moving and because of the small wheel this spinning wheel was not a popular style. It is lovely to look at, though, as this flax wheel is rather fancy, with inlaid bone or ivory set within the wheel. Some refer to this type of European spinning wheel as a "castle" or "parlor" wheel because of its lovely inlays and turnings.

The Manufacturing Process

Cultivating

It takes about 100 days from seed planting to harvesting of the flax plant. Flax cannot endure very hot weather; thus, in many countries, the planting of seed is figured from the date or time of year in which the flax must be harvested due to heat and the growers count back 100 days to determine a date for planting. In some areas of the world, flax is sown in winter because of heat in early spring. In commercial production, the land is plowed in the spring then worked into a good seedbed by discing, harrowing, and rolling. Flax seeds must be shallowly planted. Seeds may be broadcast by hand, but the seed must be covered over with soil. Machines may also plant the seed in rows.

Once flax is harvested and the fiber removed from the stalks, a scutching machine removes the broken outer layer called shives.

Flax plants are poor competitors with weeds. Weeds reduce fiber yields and increase the difficulty in harvesting the plant. Tillage of the soil reduces weeds as do herbicides. When the flax plants are just a few inches high, the area must be carefully weeded so as not to disturb the delicate sprouts. In three months, the plants are straight, slender stalks that may be 2-4 ft (61-122 cm) in height with small blue or white fibers. (Flax plants with blue flowers yield the finest linen fibers).

Harvesting

After about 90 days, the leaves wither, the stem turns yellow and the seeds turn brown, indicating it is time to harvest the plant. The plant must be pulled as soon as it appears brown as any delay results in linen without the prized luster. It is imperative that the stalk not be cut in the harvesting process but removed from the ground intact; if the stalk is cut the sap is lost, and this affects the quality of the linen. These plants are often pulled out of the ground by hand, grasped just under the seed heads and gently tugged. The tapered ends of the stalk must be preserved so that a smooth yarn may be spun. These stalks are tied in bundles called beets and are ready for extraction of the flax fiber in the stalk. However, fairly efficient machines can pull the plants from the ground as well.

Releasing the Fiber from the stalk

The plant is passed through coarse combs, which removes the seeds and leaves from the plant. This process, called rippling, is mechanized in many of the flax-producing countries.

The fiber is combed and separated by length. Line fibers (long linen fibers) are spun into linen yarn.

The woody bark surrounding the flax fiber is decomposed by water or chemical retting, which loosens the pectin or gum that attaches the fiber to the stem. If flax is not fully retted, the stalk of the plant cannot be separated from the fiber without injuring the delicate fiber. Thus, retting has to be carefully executed. Too little retting may not permit the fiber to be separated from the stalk with ease. Too much retting or rotting will weaken fibers.
Retting may be accomplished in a variety of ways. In some parts of the world, linen is still retted by hand, using moisture to rot away the bark. The stalks are spread on dewy slopes, submerged in stagnant pools of water, or placed in running streams. Workers must wait for the water to begin rotting or fermenting the stem—sometimes more than a week or two. However, most manufacturers use chemicals for retting. The plants are placed in a solution either of alkali or oxalic acid, then pressurized and boiled. This method is easy to monitor and rather quick, although some believe that chemical retting adversely affects the color and strength of the fiber and hand retting produces the finest linen. Vat or mechanical retting requires that the stalks be submerged in vats of warm water, hastening the decomposition of the stem. The flax is then removed from the vats and passed between rollers to crush the bark as clean water flushes away the pectin and other impurities.

After the retting process, the flax plants are squeezed and allowed to dry out before they undergo the process called breaking. In order to crush the decomposed stalks, they are sent through fluted rollers which break up the stem and separate the exterior fibers from the bast that will be used to make linen. This process breaks the stalk into small pieces of bark called shives. Then, the shives are scutched. The scutching machine removes the broken shives with rotating paddles, finally releasing the flax fiber from stalk.

The fibers are now combed and straightened in preparation for spinning. This separates the short fibers (called tow and used for making more coarse, sturdy goods) from the longer and more luxurious linen fibers. The very finest flax fibers are called line or dressed flax, and the fibers may be anywhere from 12-20 in (30.5-51 cm) in length.

Spinning

Line fibers (long linen fibers) are put through machines called spreaders, which combine fibers of the same length, laying the fibers parallel so that the ends overlap, creating a sliver. The sliver passes through a set of rollers, making a roving which is ready to spin. 

The linen rovings, resembling tresses of blonde hair, are put on a spinning frame and drawn out into thread and ultimately wound on bobbins or spools. Many such spools are filled on a spinning frame at the same time. The fibers are formed into a continuous ribbon by being pressed between rollers and combed over fine pins. This operation constantly pulls and elongates the ribbon-like linen until it is given its final twist for strength and wound on the bobbin. While linen is a strong fiber, it is rather inelastic. Thus, the atmosphere within the spinning factory must be both humid and warm in order to render the fiber easier to work into yarn. In this hot, humid factory the linen is wet spun in which the roving is run through a hot water bath in order to bind the fibers together thus creating a fine yarn. Dry spinning does not use moisture for spinning. This produces rough, uneven yarn that are used for making inexpensive twines or coarse yarns.

These moist yarns are transferred from bobbins on the spinning frame to large take-up reels. These linen reels are taken to dryers, and when the yarn is dry, it is wound onto bobbins for weaving or wound into yarn spools of varying weight. The standard measure of flax yarn is the cut. It is based on the measure of 1 lb (453.59 g) of flax spun to make 300 yd (274.2 m) of yarn being equal to one cut. If 1 lb (453.59 g) of flax is spun into 600 yd (548.4 m), then it is a "no. 2 cut." The higher the cut, the finer the yarn becomes. The yarn now awaits transport to the loom for weaving into fabrics, toweling, or for use as twine or rope.

Byproducts/ Waste 

Of greatest concern are the chemicals used in retting. These chemicals must be neutralized before being released into water supplies. The stalks, leaves, seed pods, etc. are natural organic materials and are not hazardous unless impregnated with much of the chemicals left behind in the retting process. The only other concern with the processing of linen is the smell—it is said that hand-retted linen produces quite a stench and is most unpleasant to experience.


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