Linen is my favorite fiber. I’ll tell you why, but first let’s talk about what linen is. Like cotton, it’s a plant fiber, but it comes from a very different plant and from a different part of the plant. Linen is the bast, or stem, fiber of the flax plant, the same plant that gives us flax seed and linseed oil. Flax grows tall like wheat, and if you don’t mind taking a thought journey with me, imagine how ridged and resilient the stem of this plant must be to keep from breaking through rain, wind and shine. Now imagine the drape or flow of a linen garment you own. Do you see a connection? Linen (flax) does not like to bend.
Back to the reasons why I love linen. The drape is one. It doesn’t easily conform to the body. It creates its own form as it falls away from the body. Another reason is more personal–I like that it feels a little dressier than cotton. The fiber is denser and therefore has a very slight sheen. More importantly, linen is not as ethically complicated as cotton. It’s grown in much smaller quantities and uses less polluting methods, which is not to say that all linen is environmentally friendly.
Alright! Let’s wash some linen.
What You'll Need
Your supplies in this case are similar to cotton. You’ll want a natural detergent, no bleach and a hanger for air drying. If you happen to be a fan of white linen, try using the detergent Oxo Brite instead of bleach.
Today, I'm washing my new Block Top, which I want to make last as long as possible. The truth is that with very little extra time and care, this top will be a hand-me-down into the next generation–well-worn but like new.
If you’re washing in the washing machine and you’ve already read the Cotton Manual, this one will sound very similar.
1. First you’ll want to check for spots or possible stains and treat them by dampening the area then placing a small dot of detergent over the spot. Rub it in for a few seconds before tossing it in the wash.
2. Next you’ll want to chose your machine settings. Are you washing bed sheets, soiled kids clothes or paint splattered jeans? No? Then choose cold water for your wash cycle. Heat deteriorates fibers more rapidly so choose cold water for your loads as often as possible. Also consider the water level carefully. You want enough water so that your clothes have room to move, but not so much that water is being wasted.
3. Because most of us don’t have enough linen for a full load, it’s perfectly fine to mix fibers in a wash. What you want to keep in mind when choosing pieces to mix into one load is color and texture. Of course, bright or dark colors might bleed onto lighter colors, but also consider the roughness of certain fabrics. As mentioned in the intro, Let’s get Started, the biggest contributors to wear and tear are heat and friction. So think about the weight of fabrics as well as color when gathering machine loads.
On the left you have a linen top and a vintage printed cotton dress. They can both be washed in a gentle machine cycle because they have similar textures and colors. In the picture on the right you have a mid-weight linen dress with long thin straps and very broken-in vintage Levi's. Again, these can both be washed in a gentle machine cycle. However, I wouldn't normally mix these because the texture of the denim is abrasive and the long straps could get tangled with the jeans and tear stitches in the seams of the linen dress.
When it comes time to drying, consider air drying all of your linens. It's easy and adds very little time to your laundry day. See air drying tips below.
Hand washing linen is no different from hand washing cotton. You can even mix them in the same bucket and wash both linen and cotton at the same time if they are similar colors.
1. Start by adding lukewarm water to a bucket or pail and mixing a small amount of natural detergent.
2. While you have some one-on-one time with your linen garment, check for spots and stains. Check the front, butt and arm pitt areas as they tend to be the regions that get most 'dirty'. Submerge you garment in the water and add a little extra soap to the area, massage it into the fabric outside of water then under water for a few seconds to work the soap out of the fabric.
3. Leave it alone for 30 minutes to 1 hour, wring firmly and prepare to air dry.
Drying linen is even easier than cotton since linen knits are less common than woven linen garments. I should mention that hang drying is usually preferable because this method dries faster. However, knits or very stretchy fabrics should not be hung since the weight of the wet fabric can deform garments. If you do have a linen knit, it should be dried flat over a mesh rack or towel (see Care Manual: Cotton to learn more about this). Most linen is woven, which usually means it can be hung to dry.
Once the linen is out of the wash, either by machine or hand, hang it on a hanger and hand-flatten major wrinkles to avoid having to iron later. I personally like small wrinkles in linen. If you like your linen fresh off the iron, I recommend hanging it until it’s almost dry and ironing while it’s still about 10% damp. Ironing garments that are still wet can scorch the fabric so please be patient and wait until it is mostly dry but still slightly damp feeling.
There's much more to be shared about linen and the care of it. Come join me on September 17 at E.M. Wolfman Books for Long Live Cloth to learn more about fiber and garment care.
Did you have any questions along the way? Do you have information that would be a good addition to this guide? Please share. Leave me a comment below. I'd love to add to the knowledge base and care manuals.
1. lacking interest or excitement; dull.
2. of this earthly world rather than a heavenly or spiritual one