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Linen is a yarn or fabric made from the cultivated flax plant, named Linum usitatissimum. This domesticated species is believed to have been developed during cultivation. It is a cellulosic plant fibre, or bast fibre, and it forms the fibrous bundles in the inner bark of the stems of the plant. The plant is an annual that grows to a height of about a metre and the fibres run the entire length of the stem and help hold it upright.

The fibre strands are normally released from the cellular and woody stem tissue by a process known as retting (controlled rotting). In Ireland this was traditionally done in water, rivers, ponds or retting dams. 

Flax was  grown in Ireland for many years before advanced agricultural methods and more suitable climate led to the concentration of quality flax cultivation in northern Europe (mainly northern France, Belgium and the Netherlands). Since the 1950's the flax fibre for Irish Linen yarn has been, almost exclusively, imported from France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

The linen manufacturing process is complicated and requires great skill at each stage of production. There are many processes involved in turning flax to fabric, which are summarised here as follows:

Cultivating Flax

Linen is a natural fabric produced from fibres of the flax plant. The plant is sown in April, produces delicate blue flowers in June and is harvested in August. After pulling, the crop is laid out in the fields to ret, a process where the woody bark of the plant is naturally rotted so that the fibres come loose from the main stem. The seeds are removed and used for linseed oil or cattle cake and a process called scutching removes the bark. It is used for chipboard. No part of the flax plant is wasted.

Treating Flax Fibre & Spinning into Linen Yarn
The fibres are hackled (combed), to separate the long line and short tow fibres. The line fibres are generally drafted and doubled, and then lightly twisted before undergoing a wet spinning process. This produces strong, fine yarn. The short tow fibres are carded and drafted and then spun using a dry spinning method. Dry-spun yarns have a heavier count and are used for furnishing fabrics, heavy apparel and household textiles and knitwear.

Weaving Linen Yarn into Linen Fabric
Weaving is an ancient craft which has been revolutionised by technology. The latest Computer Aided Design systems and dedicated sampling machinery ensure that new designs are turned around with utmost efficiency. High-speed, computer controlled looms are operated under the watchful eye of an experienced weaver giving the industry an ideal mix of automation and skill. Irish linen weavers produce a vast range of fabrics - all weights of apparel fabrics from fine cambric's to heavy suiting, damasks, furnishing fabrics and towels, both for the kitchen and the bathroom.

Finishing Linen to Create Texture or Purpose

Fabric finishing describes treatments, which occur after weaving to make the fabric suit customer requirements. These include bleaching, dyeing, coating, bonding, printing, texturising and calandering to name a few. These treatments can change the nature, feel, performance, look and texture of a fabric. Finishing linen is a complicated process, and new techniques are continually being developed to give the final fabric new properties and handles. Different finishing treatments can produce the crisp elegance of a fine damask tablecloth or the cool comfort of linen sheets and meet the demands of the fashion industry for new textures and performance. Recent developments in finishing include softwash and aero finishes for a relaxed look and easy care finishes which cut down linen's creasability and allow the fabric to be fully washable and tumble-dry friendly.

OK, so now we know how it's made, let's find out what linen's used for.

Fashion fabrics
- for making clothes

Furnishing fabrics
- for curtains and upholstery

Table linen
- napkins, tablecloths, runners 

Bed Linen
- sheets, duvet covers, pillowcases

Kitchen Linens
- tea towels, drying cloths

Handkerchiefs

Artist Canvas

Wallpaper

Postbags

Tent Canvas

Blinds

Aeroplane wing covering

Surgical yarn

Cricket ball thread

Shoe Thread

Towels- terry, huckaback


And other by-products from the flax plant:

Oil Cake/Cattle Cake

Linseed Oil (health supplement)

Linen oil for painting

Chipboard

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