Because there are so many fabrics out there that are not sustainable, you might be wondering if linen is an eco friendly fabric.
This question is especially important to those who are pushing themselves toward a more sustainable lifestyle.
So, is linen eco friendly?
The short answer is yes, but! It depends on a couple of factors like:
- how it’s made
- whether chemicals are used during processing
- where the crops to make linen are grown
- where linen clothes are processed
If you’re looking for a more sustainable home or wardrobe, or you’re wanting some slow fashion tips, you’ve come to the right place.
In this post, you’ll learn:
- how linen fabric is made
- whether it’s the most sustainable fabric
- what to look for to ensure you’ve got an eco-friendly article of clothing
This post might contain affiliate links, which means I may get a commission, at no additional cost to you, if you decide to purchase from one of the recommended companies or products. Please read the full disclosure for more information.
How is linen made?
What makes linen fabric sustainable often comes down to how linen is made.
Linen fabric is made from the flax plant, specifically from the cellulose fibers within the stem. From start to finish, it can take 3-4 months to make a batch of linen.
Once seeds from the flax plant are placed in the ground, it takes about 90 days for them to turn yellow and then brown.
At this point, the entire flax plant needs to be removed from the soil, with the roots intact.
Most of the time, the flax plant is pulled by hand, and groups are bundled for processing. But a good machine can efficiently harvest them most of the time.
After that, through a process called rippling, the seeds and leaves are removed with a special type of comb to expose the cellulose fibers.
Now, what comes next often determines just how eco friendly a batch of linen fabric will become.
In order to completely detach the cellulose fibers from the stem without damaging them, a process known as retting is implemented.
Retting can be done with water, allowing the stem to rot naturally over the course of 1-2 weeks. Or it can be accomplished a little faster with chemicals (alkali and oxalic acid).
Once the stalks are dry, they’re passed through a roller and put through a “breaking” process before being prepared for spinning.
What makes linen fabric a sustainable fabric?
Okay. So once all that’s done, it’s not hard to see what qualifies linen as “sustainable linen.”
Because the chemicals used in retting are not earth friendly, sustainable linen must ultimately come from a flax plant that went through a water-based retting process.
(And even though water is used, it doesn’t have to be fresh-from-the-hose water, and it’s still not a massive amount).
Some argue that chemical retting reduces the quality, color, and longevity of the linen fabric itself, so the chemicals don’t benefit anyone, really, except the bank accounts of the manufacturers.
This is where “organic” comes in.
If you see linen fabric labeled as “organic,” it means no chemicals were used during the retting process.
Side note: Look for USDA Certified Organic Linen because an OEKA-TEX certification simply means that the linen fabric is free of toxins. Not that it’s sustainable linen or was made in an eco friendly way.
Also be aware … you’ll notice that organic linen is more expensive than non-organic, and that’s because it’s a lengthier process to get there.
Anything that takes longer costs more, and that price gets passed on to the consumer.
What else makes linen sustainable?
The flax plant is highly resilient to drops in temperature and, in fact, prefers cooler over warmer weather, making it a great crop to grow in between the summer and spring months.
But there are a few other ways that flax linen is one of the most sustainable fabrics.
- Minimal pesticides and fertilizers are needed to needed to grow the flax plant.
- Less water is required than other fabrics, like cotton, when being grown.
- The flax plant can be grown in between other crops, specifically food crops, which is healthy for the soil and overall, environmentally friendly.
- Linen is a strong fabric and has a long life span.
- Very little waste is created during the process of growing flax for linen. Most of the plant itself is used, with the leaves and seeds being the biggest “leftovers.”
- Linen fabric is one of the most biodegradable fabrics out there, which means it will break down relatively easily and naturally without damaging the environment.
Is linen made in the USA?
Not really. You might find a few growers and hand spinners, but the vast majority of linen is made in China.
Here’s the thing, though.
Most flax plants are grown in France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, as well as Italy and Scotland.
China can grow linen, but not as easily. Therefore, they purchase flax from France, spin the fibers into linen, then sell, sell, sell.
So most of our linen comes from China.
What are the main advantages of linen fabric?
While linen is a popular choice among fashion enthusiasts, it isn’t the perfect option for all occasions or types of weather.
Here are the overall properties of linen fabric:
- high moisture-wicking properties
- highly breathable
- dries quickly when wet
- resists pilling and tearing
- is a biodegradable fabric
- is low in stretchiness
Because of its breathability, linen clothes are best suited for warm weather. You can certainly wear linen clothes when it’s cool outside, too, but keep in mind that because it isn’t a very stretchy material, a long sleeve linen shirt may not be the most comfortable to wear.
Most linen is used for clothing, with a smaller percentage going towards household items like tea towels, tablecloths, and other goods.
Sometimes diapers and even sanitary pads are made with linen fabric, so it’s not limited to popular or common items.
A lot of people like linen towels because they dry quickly after getting wet, however I don’t find them to be very absorbent myself.
Is linen more sustainable than cotton?
Organic linen clothes are a pretty sustainable choice. But are they a better option than a cotton fabric alternative?
Cotton requires a ton of water, fertilizers, and pesticides when growing. Therefore, linen is the more sustainable fabric and eco friendly choice.
What about organic options?
Even if they are certified organic, linen is still the more sustainable choice.
What are some disadvantages of linen?
Linen garments aren’t the best for winter wardrobes because they just aren’t super warm.
Also, the material is not very stretchy, making linen clothes a little uncomfortable if you need room to move around.
Linen will shrink, my friends, so here are some tips to reduce your risk of significant shrinkage:
- buy pre-washed linen
- wash in gentle cycle with cool water
- wash gently by hand (avoiding scrubbing, rubbing, and squeezing) with mild soap
- tumble dry on low heat for only several minutes, hanging up to dry afterwards
Linen has a tendency to wrinkle easily, too, and it can be hard to iron out all those wrinkles, at least from my personal experience.
Pro tip: use a medium-high heat setting when ironing, along with a bit of pressure, and feel free to lightly mist beforehand.
I’m not 100% sure if ironing linen will cause it to shrink, but since heat is a main cause of that, I’d say there’s a chance it will.
(Does anyone iron anymore??? Asking for a friend …)
Is linen the most sustainable fabric after all?
Nope. Not quite. A more sustainable fabric is recycled organic cotton or organic hemp.
If you’re buying organic, please be sure it’s certified by the USDA, especially when buying cotton.
Most organic options come from India, and there have recently been some raised eyebrows as to whether their certification process is trustworthy and accurate.
Want more eco fashion tips? Be sure to check out my following posts: