We love the effortlessly elegant look and feel of linen in the home, from bedding and pillows to curtains, napkins, and towels. It's also one of the world's oldest textiles. But do you know what makes a fabric real linen?"Linen" is a term often used to describe generic bedding and other fabrics; however, true linen is made from fibers of the flax plant. (In fact, the word linen comes from linum, the Latin term for flax.) Traditionally, high quality flax has been grown in Western Europe, particularly Belgium, Ireland, and Italy. The long fibers of the plant are spun into strong thread, which people have used to weave textiles for thousands of years.
Pure linen fabric is durable, highly absorbent, and cool to the touch. It's also resistant to moths and other insects. Items made from linen often last for decades – even generations – and actually become softer as they are washed over time.
Given this durability, and the fact that growing flax requires fewer pesticides and less water than cotton, linen is considered a relatively eco-friendly choice. There are also growers of completely organic linen. In its natural state, raw linen is off-white or tan in color. Bleaching is required for pure white linen.
Emily Ho is a writer, recipe developer, and educator. She lives in Los Angeles, where she teaches classes on food preservation, wild food, and herbalism. Emily is a Master Food Preserver and founder of LA Food Swap and the international Food Swap Network.
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