linen luxe and love
I don’t know about you, but cooler days, and long, dark nights bring out my best hibernating instincts. I like nothing more than cosying up with layers of warmth, some favourite books, magazines and movies, and turning my home focus inwards. Bedrooms should be a sanctuary all year round, but especially so in winter.
Beds made up with piles of pillows and layers of duvets and throws are the ultimate in relaxed, cosy comfort.
There is something about beautiful linen bedding. The texture, which is both a little rough and soft at the same time. It breathes so beautifully, so is wonderful to sleep in on sticky summer nights, but is equal parts cosy when nights are cooler. The more you wash linen, the softer and more beautiful it becomes. And it is a very strong, natural fibre. Those ancient Egyptians were on to something when they used linen to wrap their mummies! Treated with care, linen bedding will reward you with many many years of beautiful use. You can easily see why linen sheets were, and still are, often passed from generation to generation as an heirloom. I truly think that once you are used to sleeping in linen bedlinen, you will probably not want to sleep in anything else.
Linen is a natural fibre, made from the stalk of the flax plant. Linum Usitatissimum translates from Latin as “most useful linen.” In naming this species, botanists recognised the inherent value of the humble flax plant.
Flax is one of the few crops still produced in Western Europe, with nearly 75,000 acres under cultivation annually. Climatic conditions in this region are perfect for growing flax which then produces the best quality linen fabric. It is generally acknowledged that the best linen comes from Belgium. The flax growing cycle is short and sweet, with only 100 days between sowing in March and harvesting in July. To preserve the full potential of each plant, flax is never mowed but must be uprooted. Then, after harvesting, the flax is stacked in hedges to dry. Once dried, the seeds are removed. Next comes the all important retting process, when the flax is exposed to moisture to break down the pectins that bind the fibres together. In the past, flax was retted in rivers. Today, for ecological reasons, retting is no longer performed in rivers. However, the preferred method for the highest quality fabric still requires the intervention of Mother Nature as the flax is spread out in the fields and exposed to rain, dew and sunshine for several weeks.
The fibres are then combed and separated from the straw (shives), and then graded into the short fibers (tow) which is used for coarser yarns, or the longer fibres (line) which will be used to create the finest linen yarn. Carding then draws out the long or short fibres into sinuous “ribbons” which are then plied together on spinning looms in various weights and thicknesses and grades.
The tensile strength of linen thread is 30% stronger than cotton which means that linen can withstand more washing cycles and serve for a much longer time than cotton bedding. It is also more environmentally friendly, requiring less chemicals and pesticides and water to grow. Linen is also inherently hypoallergenic and antibacterial. It can absorb up to 20% of its weight in moisture before it feels damp, and easily releases moisture to the air to remain cool and dry to the touch. Hence it is beautiful to sleep in no matter the season.
The more I use and enjoy linen bedlinen, the more I appreciate its virtues – the lustre, easy care, stability, strength, straight grain, and wonderful texture. Especially the texture. I love the texture!
But let’s be clear, not all linens are created equal. Here are a few things to look out for when you are choosing your new linen bedding –
- Where is it made? The best linen mills are in Europe. They have experience and tradition and knowledge and heritage, and have been on the linen bandwagon since almost before there was a wagon.
- There is no such thing as a free lunch. And also, you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. These age old cliches should be heeded wisely. No disrespect intended to monkeys. The preindustrial method of linen production, from growth to harvest to retting to dressing and spinning, hasn’t really changed in centuries. Although we now have machines that complete many of these tasks, the mechanical process damages the delicate flax fibres, and the finest linens are still manufactured almost entirely by hand.
- Is your linen 100% pure linen, and not a linen blend? Or at least be aware if it is a linen blend. Many lower priced linens are a blend of cotton and linen, or linen and man made fibres or just poor quality linen. It is just the same as the Egyptian cotton debate – did you know that in many countries, including the USA, cotton bedding with as little as 5% pure Egyptian cotton can call itself ‘Egyptian cotton’. Not all linen is really just ‘linen’.
- Is it stonewashed or enzyme washed or neither? You quite possibly can’t tell just by looking at it. Stonewashed linen has quite literally been stonewashed, and in the case of our Vida and Vida Moda bedlinen, only four items at any one time can undergo this process. (Unashamed retailer plug, but these are the beautiful linen brands I sell in my store, Small Acorns.) Stonewashing softens the linen fibres gently, and ensures that the linen colour will be colourfast, and that there will be no shrinkage as a result of washing. It is a handcrafted product. On the other hand, enzyme washing is a chemical wash that aims to treat the bedlinen and fake the stonewashing process. It is like emptying an entire box or two or more of laundry detergent into your machine all at once in order to abruptly speed up the process big time. Obviously, this treatment is harsh on the linen. Particularly harsh if the linen is of poorer quality to begin with. The fibres will be damaged, the linen won’t be as soft, and the linen may not have the same longevity.
The other thing we get asked about instore all the time is about the care of linen bedding. Well I can promise you that I have had the same Vida white duvet cover on my bed for over five years now. It goes on the bed. It comes off the bed for a regular no-special-care cold water machine wash. It hangs on the line to dry. Sometimes it goes in the drier (although not until it is crispy dry as this will be very creased). It goes back on the bed. It is more beautiful than ever.
I confess, at home I don’t iron my bedlinen except perhaps the pillowcases, and this is more likely if they are cotton. When it comes to linen I embrace the natural, slightly crinkled look whole heartedly. The more you wash linen the softer and more tactile it becomes, and this is one of the most beautiful things about it. No amount of ironing will ever counter the creases anyway. In fact, instore if someone is really antsy about the creases I suggest (ever so nicely of course) that perhaps linen is not the fibre for them, and best stick with a beautiful cotton instead.
(styling and photography by Amanda Holland for perfectly imperfect living)