FIBRE 101: LINEN

We love, love, love linen. It's no secret...but we aren't fawning over just any linen. We want to share with you why ours is so special.

Image by Ewan Kingsbury

05.11.2017

Fibre 101: Linen
Courtney Holm

Introduction

In August, I had the pleasure of going to visit our linen mill in Belgium. I was also on a holiday, yet this was probably my favourite day of all. I'm a nerd for textiles, what can I say? At A.BCH we have a very close working relationship with our tier 1 suppliers (the Cut, Make, Trim part of what we do- the “made in”) However, our tier 2 suppliers (the makers of our fabrics) are often hidden under layers of agents and wholesalers. Sometimes these guys are cool, but sometimes they just don't want to give up the gossip. This means, in order for me to find out more about the people and the practises involved in creating the fabrics I value so highly in my design process, it requires a bit more digging and...constant followup. It’s probably the toughest part of the design development process for me, but also the most rewarding when I get it right. The industry largely ignores the raw material production stages when it comes to human rights and the environment- not a lot of thought is given for the people who make the fabrics, let alone the yarns before them and the farming before that. At A.BCH, we are determined to change this! Fabric is not churned out of some machine. It’s a very technically involved, creative process and we are so proud of it that we are working tirelessly to bring those deepest in the supply chain in to the light.

We were lucky to discover a linen weaver that, from the get-go, gave us so much information about their process and fibre provenance. Also, thanks to the Global Organic Textile Standard certification, we were able to discover even more. Here is what we know. We know where the fabric is milled (woven) and by whom, we also know a lot about the mill, when it was established and its historical journey through the industrial revolution, both world wars and the importance of textiles to the Belgian economy to this day. We also have insight into the flax farming, including who the farmers are and why they do what they do, the local processing, like scutching, and where the yarns are spun. This is one of our most traceable supply chains where we know each stage, from fibre to finish. It’s pretty much our benchmark for all of our supply lines. However, it was only after going to the mill, where the entire process is co-ordinated and commissioned with such passion and integrity, that the impact of tangible transparency really hit home.

Flax Plants A.BCH
Flowering flax plants in Belgium

I’d love to take you on this journey with me and my trusty photographer/ builder/ fit model/ husband, Ewan, not only through the process of linen production but also the people behind it and why they do what they do. What I want you to discover most is how intrinsically connected this fibre is with the people who farm it, process it and weave it. It’s an incredible story of passion and dedication to a natural fibre that has been used as clothing for some 36,000 years, yet is still so desired as a modern fabrication. Here's a little breakdown menu, in case you wanted to skip to specific parts. Just click on the menu item below to go right there...it's going to be long. If you've got the time, why not make a cuppa or pour a glass of wine and get cosy for a good 20 minute read?

 

1. How is linen grown?
2. By Farmers. 
3. From plant to fibre, it's complicated
4. From fibre to yarn, where only the long survive
5. The Mill- where fabric is crafted and dreams are born
6. The Warp is not from Stranger Things 
7. Weaving is where she finally gets to the point
8. Just kidding, there's still Shearing
9. Inspection and quality too
10. Don't forget Carbon emissions

 

1. How is linen grown?

Linen has been around for thousands of years, though it is probably most historically associated with ancient Egypt. The flax plant was cultivated and used by the Egyptians as a prized textile. Linen was exported, used in mummification as well as for clothing, textiles, ropes and bags. Known for its strength and durability, linen was the fibre of choice for the finest textiles as well as the sturdiest ropes. 

Today linen is still used in many applications, from clothing to interiors to aeroplane exteriors! Linen is the term used for finished fabric, however, it begins as a humble flax crop. Weather conditions greatly impact the cultivation of flax and will determine the yield and quality of the final product. It is therefore vital that the sowing of flax seed is done in cool temperatures (minimum 3-4°C), but harsh conditions like severe frost or heavy rain could cause the seed to be destroyed or washed away. Depending on the conditions of that particular season, different strains of flax seed might be chosen in order to help the crop achieve maximum potential for yield and quality. About 100 days after planting the seed, the flax plant will be around 1m high and ready for uprooting. Flax is green and quite weedy looking, but once it flowers it is a sight to behold. Each flower lasts for one day only, with stunning lilac miniature petals that speckle the field with purple and blue. From here the plants develop several seed pods which will later be used as food (linseed!), linseed oil or for sowing a new crop.

Flax Seed Pods
Flax seed pods are used for food, like linseed and linseed oil, ground flax and new harvest seed.

Our organic linen is grown on rotation with other organic produce, such as alfalfa and chickpeas. The rotation ensures the soil is nourished and ready for the next flax plant.

When the flax is ready for harvest it is uprooted rather than chopped off. This means that each sowing season a new flax seed is planted. The uprooted plant is left outside in neat, parallel rows, lying flat on the ground. It is here where nature really does its thing. While the flax plants lay low and are exposed to rain, dew and sun, an enzyme reaction occurs causing the fibres to loosen from the stalky roots and this is called ‘retting’. This break down takes anywhere from 2-6 weeks (weather depending) and ensures the plant can be processed properly in the next stage. It’s truly an art to discern when the retting process is done and the fibres are just perfectly loosened. Interesting fact, retting is not always so au natural. Because of the volatility of the weather and the slow speed of natural retting, the industry standard these days is to do the retting chemically. So our flax farmers really are experts and champions for keeping this process old school.

We have the Belgians to thank for this, too, with an established Masters of Linen certification body that demands high environmental and quality standards. Their linen is regarded as some of the highest quality in the world. Want to know more about where our special organic linen is grown? Read on or back to menu

 

2. By Farmers.

Ten years ago, a group of farmers from Seine-et-Marne (Northern France) decided to take on the challenge of “going organic”. It seemed like the right thing to do. Throughout the decade they were able to figure out how to do this commercially while maintaining the integrity of organic farming and premium quality flax. These farmers built a relationship with our legend linen mill, who were keen to see how they could take environmental responsibility to the next level. You see, linen is a pretty “good” fibre regardless of whether or not it is organic. It’s not water intensive like cotton, nor does it require as much by way of pesticides or insecticides and the Masters of Linen (mentioned above) do not allow irrigation or GMO seed. However, the industry standard retting process is chemically intensive and, with any old linen, the stages from farm to yarn are often hidden to protect commercial interests of parties higher up in the supply chain.

Sure, regular linen might be cheaper than organic, but our organic GOTS certified linen is next level when it comes to protecting and preserving the environment and its provenance is a wide-open book. That’s why we chose it and will continue to! Plus, have you felt it? It’s softer and more delightful than any other linen we’ve worn. Head back to the menu or scroll on.

3. From plant to fibre, it's complicated

Once the linen is effectively retted and harvested by machine, it’s bundled up into bales (kind of like cotton) and taken to the local scutcher- we are still in France, here. The scutching is very important in the processing of the fibre, this is where seed pods are combed off and used for food, oils and new harvest seed, while large rollers break the woody stems of the plants to separate the linen fibres (tow) from the stalks (shives). The fibres are sorted by length. Long fibres are used in the finest linen, while the shorter fibres are used for spinning coarser yarns or in paper-making. The shives are processed again for chipboard and animal bedding. Ladies and gentlemen, with this plant, nothing is wasted. Back to menu.

4. From fibre to yarn, where only the long survive

The longest fibres are combed again and again until only the very longest of the long remain. This lengthy bundle of smoothly combed fibres is called the line and looks like a continuous dollop of dark blonde hair. The combed out shorter fibres indeed do survive and are taken away to be processed into coarser yarns. After the fibre is ready, it is taken to a spinning mill, where the fibres are drawn out with a frame to get the correct weight and quality for spinning, it is also here that various farm fibres will be mixed together, which may convolute its traceability. The GOTS organic are kept separate of course, as these must be fully traceable.

Spun Flax Yarn
Spun flax yarn at our mill is only created from the longest fibres. These go on to create the world's softest linens.

The line is then fed across a flax spinning machine, where it can be spun dry, wet or semi-wet. Dry spun yarns usually have a coarser, hairier appearance while wet-spun yarns are passed through warm water prior to spinning and are the smoothest. During the spinning, depending on the speed of the feed roller, the yarn metric weight is determined allowing for a variety of weights for differing end uses (think heavy upholstery fabrics or very fine muslins). These yarns are wound onto spools and dried if wet-spun. Yarns can be dyed at this stage but our mill deals mostly with natural yarn or bleached yarn which, once woven, are called “loomstate” fabrics. In the case of our organic fabrics, bleaching is done as per the GOTS certification based on oxygen instead of chlorine. Back to menu.

5. The Mill- where fabric is crafted and dreams are born

Now we enter the Belgian mill where all of our GOTS organic linens are woven up into fabrics. This mill has some history as it was established in 1858! It began as two separate businesses that merged to form Libeco Lagae, a merger that moved them into a new premises in 1883. That premises is still standing and indeed the very same mill I visited in August 2017.

Levien and Courtney from A.BCH
Hi Lieven! Thanks for the tour, and for answering all my questions!

The reception area revealed a very old looking loom that they’ve had since the mill was established. We were met by the very kind Lieven, who answered all of my technical queries with patience and took us on a detailed tour of the entire place. Back to menu.

6. The Warp is not from Stranger Things

So how is linen woven? Is it just spat out by a machine? Heads up, it gets a little technical here, though I've tried to keep it simple. The issue being, it's just not that simple. It's a process of many hands, technical know-how and cool weaving equipment. 

Spun yarns are delivered into the warehouse. It’s here that thousands of metres of linen yarns are stored, mostly natural and undyed (a sand/ straw colour). Now, if you know anything about basic weaving, you need two directions of yarn in order to make a cloth. The variety and order at which the yarns are woven together (think over under over under) are what create different types of weaves (think satin, drill, cross, birdseye and so many more). Therefore, two types of yarns are needed- the warp and the weft. The warp is “prepared” for weaving so that the other yarns (the weft) are able to be shot through pre-determined spaces created by the warp preparation and machinery. Spools of the spun yarn (bobbins) are taken to the sectional warping machine. Here, yarns are guided onto a large rotating roller and all yarns are kept separated, not crossed over one another. 



Warp Beam
A warp beam ready for the next step.

This prepared yarn is then transferred onto a large beam, called the warp beam, by a machine that spins the beam whilst organising the threads into columns, guided by hand and essentially setting up one half of the fabric. Depending on the size of the beam, interiors need longer widths. For example, the beam is warped at around 1,000 strands per minute. The strands are then tied up in a particular way as to not overlap threads. A completed warp beam will contain between 3,000-10,000 metres of yarn. 

The warp beams are given three final additions, the drop wire, heddle and reed. Every yarn is threaded through a large frame containing each of the above. Firstly, the yarns are threaded through drop wires, one for each yarn. Heddles are then attached to the heald frame, during weaving the frame will move up or down to create a gap between yarns, this allows the weft yarn to pass through the gap and thus create a weave. The order at which these frames move up and down will determine what kind of weave is created. Finally, each yarn goes through the reed, the reed movement battens the weft against the already woven fabric. This “threading” may be done by machine, or manually, depending on the thickness of the yarns. 

Sectional Warping Machine
Adding the drop wire, heddle and reed seems slightly complicated.

Sometimes a whole bobbin is not used to make up the warp beam, but a full bobbin is required in order to prepare a warp beam or set up for continuous weaving. Rather than chuck the leftovers, there is a whole room of winding machines dedicated to joining the leftover spools back together to create a whole spool. The machinery doesn’t tie the yarns together, instead, fibres are blasted by compressed air and water and spliced together. There is no waste to be seen here, ladies and gentlemen! Now we're getting to the exciting part... or I guess you could head back to the menu.

7. Weaving is where she finally gets to the point

Finally, the warp beams with the prepared yarns, drop wire, heddles and reed are transported into the loom area, a massive room full of moving equipment. The warp beams, drop wires, heddle and reed are mounted by technicians and can take several hours. Much planning is required as this time can be halved if they are mounting the same type of weave again. The weft yarn bobbins are then set up; these yarns will shoot through the gaps created by the heddle via rapier or projectile. The average flax loom can weave 200 wefts per minute (around 30 cm of linen).

Fabric is made
Loomstate fabric

Once the technician has ensured everything is perfectly prepared for the weavers, the highly skilled weavers/ loom operators take over. Each one manages several looms at once. The operators are very meticulous to ensure the quality of the fabric in real time. Sometimes, a yarn will break, as linen is very strong and not very stretchy. In this case the whole loom will stop weaving, until a weaver can come and fix the issue. In the case of a breakage, the weaver can make something called a weaver’s knot, which is so tiny it can pass through any of the thread gauges unnoticed. The sound of the linen weaving is a loud, rhythmic hum. Apparently linen is not woven at the highest possible speed as it could cause the yarns to break. Even the fibre itself demands a slower pace! Swoon.

The weave is compressed to remove any spaces and as the linen is woven, tiny (and very cute) clippers cut off the excess selvedge, which is also used for other products. There are large vacuums that move around the space constantly, sucking up bits of fibre and fluff that inevitably comes off the yarns. These are drawn into a chamber and resold as insulation and padding materials. Yes, even the fluff is salvaged! Both the technicians and the weaver were kind enough to let us peer into their work, observing the intricacies of the loom, and how mechanised yet still hand guided the whole process is. The mill employs around 40 weavers and technicians, many of whom have worked in the mill for decades, some whose parents and grandparents worked in the mill before them. It’s a family orientated business and that is evident. Libeco's ability to grow through the decades, progress in areas of climate efficiency while maintaining a heritage quality really is something to be proud of. 

Winding Machines
Winding machines for that zero waste thing they do. No biggie.

Some of the looms looked incredibly fancy. The new power looms, I discovered, were actually MADE in Belgium, unlike the older ones which were made in France. That information really struck me, coming from Australia where we hardly manufacture any machinery onshore. The textile industry in Belgium is strong, employing over 42,000 people, it makes sense that they would manufacture their equipment close to home. I'm still super impressed. Back to menu.

8. Just kidding, there's still Shearing

The finished fabric is then literally shaved to take away any fluffy build up that happens during the weaving, giving the linen a nice texture. This process is mechanised but operated by several people. All the loose fluffy bits that get shaved away are sucked into large barrels and are sold as building insulation or for making archival quality paper. Oh Libeco, you sweet, waste-free business, you. 

9. Inspection and quality, too

The loomstate fabrics are inspected for any flaws, metre by metre, with strong lights to ensure any stain, pull or weaving mistake that is found can be fixed by hand. The menders are focused and detailed, ensuring the fabric is perfect before leaving the mill for dyeing and finishing. Once the fabric is returned from dyeing and finishing (if applicable) the fabric is inspected again for any further flaws before it is placed onto rolls and stored in the warehouse. The warehouse might hold some 2 million metres of fabric ready to be shipped to customers around the world.

Quality Control
Quality control room with Lieven

The team always know exactly how much of each fabric is available and can cross reference every roll sent out with a number and sample, ensuring dye lots can be repeated more accurately. It's a fine example of good organisation and, as a result, ordering from them is easy, informative and fast. From here it is shipped to us directly in Melbourne, Australia, where we will cut it up and turn it into delicious linen garments for your life. I want to say a massive thank-you right here, to both Libeco and to our agent Melman here in Australia, who helped us co-ordinate everything. Back to menu.

10. Don't forget Carbon emissions

One of the ways we measure our unique A.BCH environmental impact is through life cycle assessments. A key consideration is how much carbon we are releasing into the atmosphere by making our product, as well as how much water is used, and the amount of chemicals added, if any. A standard white cotton shirt may emit around 9kg of CO2 from production to delivery but it's very hard to calculate exactly due to the lack of transparency most brands have around raw materials. Our organic linens are pretty special in that we know where the raw materials have travelled from exactly, and we've researched the impact at each stage of production. 

We've calculated the total carbon emissions for a simple organic linen shirt made from this fine material we've been raving about and, in comparison to all other garments we have made, it is our lowest impact garment to date. This is partly due to fibre itself and GOTS certification, but also thanks to our certified carbon neutral mill and local/ international customer delivery. Go team.

Total Production Carbon Emissions for A.05
(Basic white, organic linen button up shirt)

Cultivation/Processing
0.00002kg CO2

Spinning
0.04kg CO2

Weaving
CO2 Neutral

Dyeing
0.98kg CO2

Cut, Make, Trim
1kg CO2

Transport
0.8kg CO2

Distribution
CO2 Neutral

Toal CO2 emissions in kg = 2.82 

We'll use this kind of formula as we grow to gain better understanding of our impact, and how we can offset it. For now, it's a great comparison and awareness tool. It's also something we want to share with other labels who are claiming to be sustainable. So if you're one of those labels, why don't you get in touch? As you may have noticed, we love to chat about how we do this.

It's carbon neutral milling
Sectional warping machines are cool too!

The price tag is not rock bottom for our fabric, nor any product created with it, and I hope you'll understand why after reading this. The quality is incredible and linen has a way of weaving its way into people's hearts. I hope you'll check out some of our linen favourites like the A.05 black and A.05 white, we also have a very special 3 piece capsule about to launch very soon! Sign up to the A.BCH Community newsletter below to be the first to see it!

If you have made it this far I doubt you'll need to go back to the menu, plus, I am blown away! Thanks for accompanying me on my most detailed (maybe too detailed?) post to date. Also, if you did get all the way through, you must be as keen to nerd out on this stuff as me, and I definitely want to know about it. Send me any questions or comments to hello@abch.world. I'd love to hear from you! Until next time. xx