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THe case for linen

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I recently noticed that there have been a couple of questions in the Asia (Thailand) forum about what might or might not be suitable clothing to wear whilst visiting Thailand or for that matter, any tropical country.

This is not aiming to be a complete guide to what to wear as such but it aims to set out the case for one fabric in particular – linen.

If you are thinking about what to wear in the tropics, it may well prove a “life-saver”.....

In order to put to rest any misconceptions about the efficacy of linen, I've gathered together some points for consideration about this most ancient of fabrics....I”m not suggesting either, that it is the only fabric to wear or any such thing, but I do think that many people are unaware as to why this fabric has been so popular in the tropics for so long. In particular, people visiting from cooler climates who are unaccustomed to the humidity and heat of the tropics may benefit greatly from including this fabric in their travel wardrobe.

There is a tendency for young or developing cultures to uncritically worship anything new and disregard the old as not worth consideration. However, linen is being looked at again by many who have found that it has qualities that are equal to or even better than many “hi-tech” man-made fabrics.

So for the uninitiated, here's a resume for linen, and the characteristics that have long made it a popular choice for those travelling or living in hot, humid climes.

“In hot weather people wearing linen clothes have been found to show a skin temperature of 3°- 4°C below that of those similarly dressed in silk or cotton”

Basics:

Linen is a natural fabric, from the flax (linseed) plant - made into clothing , it has a well-earned reputation for its exceptional coolness and freshness in hot weather. It is currently going through a renaissance as people become aware of it's properties and seek an alternative to unfashionable and un-eco-friendly garments using made-made fibres. It also has certain cachet in fashion circles and is seen as a high-grade alternative to ubiquitous cotton.

Linen is the oldest fabric known; the flax plant from which it comes is easy to cultivate and was used to make the oldest fabrics ever found (over 35,000 years). It is the fabric that put the “lin” in “lingerie”, “linoleum”, “line”, “liniment” and “lining”; (a jacket lined with linen will be considerably cooler than one lined with silk or man made fabrics).

It is very versatile:
– it is much stronger than cotton yet can be very soft, it can however be made to behave in many different ways; if you have ever had to wear detachable collars (as I did every day at school) you'll know what I mean.

It is virtually universally accepted:
- (with the possible exceptions of a few chronically insane, fashion philistines and those involved in the production of polyesters) - that in hot climates, natural fabrics are usually best– and of these linen stands out as having some of the best features.

Coolness: -
Air flow -
Linen allows more air-flow and it's structure means it stays away from your skin allowing better airflow over your body, it is a “stiff” fabric and is less likely to cling to the skin; when it billows away, it tends to dry out and become cool quickly so that your skin is being continually touched by a cooling surface.
Added to this Linen possesses high air permeability which allows airflow through the fabric itself and provides the body with room to breathe!

Moisture -
Linen is highly absorbent and a good conductor of heat, linen fabric feels cool to the touch it will quickly remove perspiration from the skin. Linen is “hygroscopic”; It is capable of absorbing moisture and then and quickly yielding it again. It has been established that due to its molecular structure linen cloth can absorb as much as 20% of its dry weight before giving a feeling of being damp or wet, This means that it will absorb a lot of perspiration and it is unlikely you will ever feel the fabric is clammy. Water evaporates off linen as quickly as off the surface of a pond or puddle etc.. Thus water is absorbed quickly and evaporated quickly. This makes the fabric itself an excellent cooling system. All these properties allow linen to function well in very hot and humid conditions significantly alleviating the effects of the heat and humidity on the wearer.

Heat conductivity properties -
Linen has good heat conductivity characteristics; this refers to the extent to which heat can be conveyed through the fibre. As the fibre quickly allows the heat to escape, it further improves cooling. Heat conductivity of linen is five times as high as that of wool and 19 times as that of silk.

It is claimed......
“In hot weather those dressed in linen clothes are found to show the skin temperature 3°-4°C below that of their silk or cotton-wearing friends”. According to some studies, a person wearing linen clothes perspires 1.5 times less than when dressed in cotton clothes and twice less than when dressed in viscose clothes.”

Linen weave reflects heat better too
– linen has the highest heat reflection properties of almost any clothing material – better than cotton or of course any man-made fabric, so it effectively has good “Shading” properties and again the wearer feels cooler.

Other qualities: -
Linen is almost lint free, non-allergenic, non-static, naturally insect-repellent and provides UV protection,

Strong
- Linen is among the strongest of the vegetable fibres, with 2 to 3 times the strength of cotton. Linen is a durable fibre, as is two-three times as strong as cotton. It is second in strength to silk. You pay a little extra for linen but it will very likely outlast all your other clothes.

Linen has high tensile strength and a very low friction coefficient – the more Linen is washed the softer and smoother it becomes, so it isn't abrasive to the skin. - no chafing! - Important after a long day trekking around the temples!

Texture
- it is smooth, lint-free and can be used in many countries to make high quality paper e.g. bank notes. Is it itchy? - No, that's one reason why it was used as bandaging and bedsheets. However a garment such as a shirt will achieve it's optimum soft texture only after a few washes. Of course any poor quality fabric regardless of the material can be itchy. Don't be taken in by ersatz materials.

Resistance to fungus and bacteria - Linen has natural antibacterial properties and that is why it is used in medicine. It also acts against the bacteria that make you smell.

Filtering
- It is particularly good at filtering out dust and daily particulate pollution – e.g. from traffic, agriculture etc. It is also an excellent filter protecting against chemical exposure and even noise! Although I doubt if anyone would consider investing in a pair of linen ear-muffs!

COST
- Warning for the “Kee Neow” - linen is in general more expensive than cotton. As it is produced in lower quantities than many fabrics and can be more difficult to spin (manufacture that is – not wash), it tends to be relatively expensive – but I personally think worth every penny especially when you take into account its resilience and longevity.

Versus other (especially man-made) fibres: -

Linen is above all a natural fibre, even the growing of flax is less environmentally damaging than cotton and of course petrochemical based made-made fibres.

Linen rejects dirt and washes easily; 
linen and linen-containing articles are easily laundered in hot water, may be boiled and dried in the sun, they can then be hot-ironed ensuring maximum sterilization. You certainly can't hot iron most man-made fibres or treat them so roughly when washing.

Linen cloth does not accumulate static electricity, so much a problem with man-made fibres. - I'm told It is even used in the protective garments of spacemen and the outside of spaceships.

Even linen-blended fabrics have higher thermal insulation values than cotton fabrics. This again means you stay cool on the inside. In general linen blends can retain many of the properties of linen without the characteristic creasing of 100% linen.

e.g. Gor-tex and Coolmax.

Fibres such as polyester, and nylon cannot be given the same thermal and moisture handling characteristics as linen or even cotton.. They can be formed into compound materials for specific purposes, This is achieved by multilayering the fabric. e.g. Coolmax or Gor Tex.
Gor Tex, which apart from several industrial applications is best known as a hi-tech waterproof fabric – but the properties of this fabric - which is usually composed of 5 layers - will reduce with time as they rely on a coating to the thread which wears off with washing and use.
Even after half a century of development they cannot compete with natural fibres in day to day wear and fashion. Despite all the advances we’ve made over the last one hundred years, we have not yet developed an affordable alternative to nature’s cellulose based fabrics.
Coolmax, essentially tries to mimic the properties of linen – where cotton tends to cling to damp skin restricting air-flow Coolmax tries to keep water away from the skin by “wicking” or capillary action and then allowing air-flow inside the garment, mimicking the way linen works. Again this is achieved by “multi-layered” construction on the fabric.
Man-made fibres with special purposes are also very costly and their properties are not permanent, they are often reduced with wear and washing or require special cleaning.
With new hi-tech fabrics repeated washing can gradually reduce the garments properties as the structure of the fibres or their coatings fail. They can also clog with sweat and fail to operate properly.

A lot of the high-performance synthetic clothing has the legend "Do not use fabric softener" on the tag. This is because the coatings that are so important to these fabrics may disappear and the nature and effectiveness of the special fibres will be changed.

Linen and linen-blended fabrics have higher thermal insulation values than cotton fabrics.
UV – linen is resistant to the effects of UV – which can devastate man-made fabrics and the colours.

Sun protection –
Lightweight fabrics by their very nature offer less UV protection than heavyweight winter cloths – however weave for weave Linen has a higher SPF than cotton, basically though with any fabric, the tighter the weave the more the protection. It is fairly obvious that a compromise is needed and a fine-weave ultra-light would be the best solution.
Dyed linen – natural dye or otherwise – has been shown to have even better UV protection properties.
Manmade, stretchy fabrics are particularly prone to loosing some of their UV protection. Wear and tear will lower the UV rating, even with good UV properties stretching can lower the rating. Again, with moisture, many man-made fabrics have lower ratings when wet or damp (e.g. due to perspiration)
Linen however is able to absorb a lot of moisture without changing its UV factor.

MODERN? - Fashionable?

Fashion
The massive increase in flax cultivation over the last couple of decades is primarily lead by it's renaissance as a much sought after material in the fashion industry. Over the past 30 years the end use for linen has changed dramatically. In the 1970s only about 5% was used for fashion fabrics, by the 1990s approximately 70% of linen production in was for apparel textiles and the trend continues –

This seems to be something that Thailand as yet does not seem to be part of to any great extent. In everyday wear, Thailand unfortunately mixes uniform and conformity and the formal to the detriment of any fashion flare – in business and leisure the nylon shirt and that ultimate anti-christ of fashion the stay-press trouser are still king.

(fortunately cotton denim is not very good for hot weather so we don't have to see that other fashion faux-pas, older people wearing jeans with the faded line down the front where someone – mother!?! - has repeatedly ironed a crease in them!).

“Linen fabrics produce excellent aesthetic and drape properties”

Wrinkling – the “wrinkliness” of linen has long been admired and exploited in fashion. The word textile is derived from the latin word meaning “Touch” and linen is considered one of the most tactile textiles. The tendency to wrinkle is often considered part of the fabric's particular "charm", and a lot of modern linen garments are designed to be air dried on a good hanger and worn without the necessity of ironing. Fabric in fashion is all about texture and many designers use linen specifically for it's "crumpled" effect and rough texture similar to that achieved with silk.

However there are now several composite materials which aim to keep the main properties of linen without the wrinkles – however philistine that may seem. Apparently even a 10% linen composite can have most of linen's properties.

People often associate linen with a course texture – this is not necessarily the case, although in fashion texture is all important; a characteristic often associated with contemporary linen yarn is the presence of "slubs", or small knots which occur randomly along its length. However, these are actually defects associated with low quality fabric, the finest linen has very consistent diameter threads, with no slubs.
I wouldn't be impressed with slubs on my dress shirt or bedlinen but on a summer leisurewear, jacket shirt or trousers I would consider it part of the appeal, akin to “raw” silk.

Many fabrics both man-made and natural are textured to mimic the properties of Linen – several cottons included.They all have some things in common: aimed at the summer market, they have a distinct texture, and they all serve one purpose — to keep part of the fabric away from the skin. By only touching parts of the epidermis, they allow for air channels to open right up....but it is still linen that does this best.

As far as the “modern” fabrics and fashion are concerned, there is a tendency for them to be used to make “sports” or special purpose clothing and I think the sight of an elderly, overweight person garbed out in hi-speed running shoes, “speedos” and sports vest is rather unfortunate not to say incongruous, whereas a well tailored shirt and shorts or pants can made the most lumpen of ancient bodies look presentable.

Anyway - which would you prefer to live with linen or nylon? To me you might as well ask; which would you prefer to relax in, a fine teak chair or a plastic one? Unless you're a member of the “bootless and unhorsed” I think I know what your answer would be.......

FIT: -
Long-flowing, loose-fitting garments with long legs and sleeves actually keep you cooler than shorts.

All clothing worn in a tropical climate needs to fit well – not too tight and with room for the body to move and breathe properly. Badly made ill-fitting clothes e.g too tight or pinching in certain areas, will magnify any discomfort when worn in a hot climate....quality tailoring can often make a difference......loose and comfortable is the key – linen hangs well and it very suitable for this.

Tight clothing that hugs the body, especially if closely woven, will not allow air to flow over the skin which is important so that the sweat on your skin evaporates.

Care and Characteristics of linen: -
As said before laundering linen is easy; you can wash linen as hard as you like , but it doesn't really grab hold of dirt or stains so you'll find it washes easily even in cold water and dries quickly.

Be careful! - New linen shrinks. Don't take the word of some teenage shop assistant who says it won't!

If you have anything tailor-made have the fabric soaked and dried before it is made into clothing – any tailor worth his salt should know that.

I have bought prete-a-porter items (trousers) that have subsequently shrunk – so don't have then hemmed in the shop I always make sure there is ample leg length to accommodate this and have them hemmed after washing at home.

Linen has poor elasticity and does not spring back readily, explaining why it wrinkles so easily. Constant creasing, especially with starch, in the same place in sharp folds will tend to break the linen threads. This wear can show up in collars, hems, and any area that is iron creased regularly during laundering.

If your clothes smell?
Well sorry, but that's probably not the fabric but more likely down to the wearer. Assuming all your clothes are washed the same way, linen is actually LESS likely to smell than other fabrics - the smell in fabrics comes usually from the bacteria that live on the wearer's skin. If you are overweight you have to be exceptionally vigilant in warm weather as the “folds” in your skin are particularly fertile breeding grounds. Also if the clothes are tight against your skin (see “fit”), the bacteria will transfer more easily and you will prevent linen from working in the way it should – keeping fabric away from your skin.and drying out........Linen will absorb the moisture but also dries out quickly, which kills the bacteria but if you wear your clothes too tight evaporation cannot take place so effectively – you can of course experience this problem with any material and “clingy” or damp ones will be more prone to smelling

Any clothes (any material) that are not properly washed and DRIED are likely to maintain a bacterial colony originating – from YOU! - So the answer is wear clothes loosely and to wash (maybe even in hot water) and then dry completely. You can iron linen when quite wet, it will then dry easily in the on the line or in the sun. Tumble driers are not so good as they wrinkle it up again.

Mozzies and fat or oversized people
- Mozzies have limited senses; they are designed to seek out and sink their mouthparts into large animals in bad light. - e.g. Buffaloes. Mozzies are sensitive to such things as CO2 and big black silhouettes – So try and avoid looking like that if you can. Wear light coloured clothes and avoid wearing clothes that are too tight – so the fabric is held close to or tight on the skin – Mozzies like bare skin best but will happily bite through any thin fabric if it stays still in relation to the skin long enough. Linen should be worn comfortable and loose – no mozzie will bite through that . If the fabric cannot move in relationship to the skin then a mozzies have a better chance of getting through any light, coarse weave, linen or otherwise. The finer the weave the more difficulty the mozzie will have; any cheaper, coarse weaves will leave holes big enough for a mozzie to dine through.

Hotels.....bed linen.
You are seldom the first to lie on a hotel bed-sheet so hygiene is important.....
Many of the best hotels still insist on using linen for such as bedclothes and table cloths. (counting cotton stitching is really little more than a sales gimmick initiated by the cotton trade to counter the dominance of linen.) – As the linen fibre absorbs moisture and yet dries more quickly and is quick and economic to wash and dry. Linen is is durable and can be washed (and ironed) at the highest temperatures making it a safe product and virtually eliminating the transmission of “bed-born” diseases – either through bacteria or parasites such as bed-bugs.
So a good linen sheet is not only pleasant to lie on being soft and smooth it is very hygienic.

Longevity -
At the family home we have “the linen room” - which these days doesn't contain quite as much linen as it used to due to cost – but nevertheless still contains some items that are over 100 years old! (They bear the monograms and laundry marks to prove it!) The tablecloths and napkins are still brought out for special occasions and look stunning, The bed-linen is now running out (using it for making “sailboats and ghosts” at play didn't improve the stock) but the remaining sheets are still more than serviceable and feel of getting into “crisp linen sheets” can't be beaten.

I don't know about you, but if I found any man-made fibres adorning my hotel bed, I'd look for another place to stay.....or at least a change of bed-clothes

How green is my valet?
Linen is above all a natural fibre, even the growing of flax is less environmentally damaging than cotton and of course petrochemical based made-made fibres.

For those concerned with green issues – linen fairs pretty well – obviously it wins head and shoulders over man-made fibres which rely so heavily on fossil fuels for all aspects of their creation.

Less energy and water are required in the manufacture of linen in comparison with other fabrics, such as cotton. Virtually all of the plant is useable there is little or no wastage in production

Cultivation -
Flax also outshines cotton in other resects, apart from it's physical qualities its cultivation has far less impact on the environment; farming flax requires few fertilizers or pesticides. Cotton, which requires a more specific climate and a huge amount of water has an immense impact on the environment – a quick look at any river system near a cotton growing area will demonstrate that.

Recycling and disposal -
Linen is “organic and when it decomposes it leaves only the plant materials and molecules it was made of. Man-made fibres are frequently inert and will remain forever – even those that decompose leave residues from the plastics/petrol-chemical industry, so you might also want to consider the long-term effects of disposing of synthetic/plastic fabrics on the environment.

Problems -
Currently the Canadian crop (the worlds largest) has been contaminated with GM plants – which could impact on the world supply, but China is now the second largest producer in the world and will in all likelihood take up any slack in the market.

So there you go – linen in all its glory! Things that have been around for a while usually have been around for a good reason. We often look for hi-tech solutions to problems when in fact our grandparents had it solved all along.

When all is said and done, if it's good enough for Jim Thompson, it's good enough for me.

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