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Introduction to Weaving with Linen Yarn

  • 7 min read
Maurice Brassard linen yarns - Thread Collective Australia
Maurice Brassard Linen Yarns

What is Linen Yarn?

Linen yarn comes from fibres spun from the stems of flax plants and is one of the oldest fibres in the world. Linen textiles were likely first developed around 8000 BC by people living near Troy (now known as Turkey). Although, many believe spinning and weaving with linen yarn goes back to ancient Egypt and Rome, there are no written records of it until about 500 AD. Linen has been used for centuries in Europe and Asia, but weaving with linen was only introduced to America after the Civil War.

These yarns are known for their strength and durability when woven into fabric. Linen, though not as strong as silk, is 2-3 times stronger than cotton. It is reputable for being lightweight, resilient and its propensity to soften with use. It has a wide variety of uses, including garments, tablecloths, bedding, and curtains.

Is there a Difference between Flax and Linen Yarns?

This is a frequently asked question and no, there is no difference between flax and linen yarns, they are the same. Confusion arises as flax is the name of the plant, and the raw fibre is often referred to as flax, while linen is the name of the yarn once spun.

weaving with linen yarn
100% linen for tapestry and rug warping yarn

How is Linen Made?

After flax plants have been harvested the flax fibres go through a series of steps to prepare them for spinning. They are first threshed to remove seeds and any other undesirable parts. They are then retted which involves being cleaned in a series of water baths to break down the woody bark so that the more delicate fibre can be removed without damage.

Following this, fibres are combed into alignment to make spinning them by hand or by mill equipment possible. The fibre can be spun wet (line spun) or dry (tow spun). After they have been spun the linen yarns are reeled, dried, then left naturally coloured, bleached or dyed before the yarns are woven, knit or crocheted by makers.

Hand spinning Flax

For the weavers who prefer to spin their own yarns, we will touch briefly on the process of spinning flax in this section. Some hand spinners will go through the extensive process of growing and processing their own flax; however, most will opt for readily available flax fibres. These fibres have been through the initial production steps and are ready to spin. Many spinners find flax more manageable to spin wet. This is done by dipping your leading fingers in water or a damp sponge, as required, to help smooth down the fibres as you draft.

Once the hand-spun linen is skeined, it will be coarse and likely twisted and tangled in appearance. If you’ve chosen to ply your yarn it may even look unevenly plied at this stage. This will all typically even out in the finishing, which is vastly different from finishing yarn spun from animal fibres.

To finish your linen yarn, simmer it in a large pot for an hour with two tablespoons of washing soda and a tablespoon of liquid soap or grated soap flakes. This combination removes most pectins from your yarn, turning the water a murky brown and cause the yarn to lighten significantly. As the yarn dries, periodically snap it or thwack it against a wall or post to encourage the fibre to soften. Once dry it is ready to use in your craft projects.

What Makes Linen Special and Why is it Expensive?

Linen has become a luxury fibre because the production of linen is quite laborious and expensive, which is why it is produced in relatively small batches.

Linen is one of the more durable natural fibres available. It is valued in garment making for the way it softens with use and for the sensation of coolness and freshness it can provide in hot weather.

It is also special as the process of producing it is one that uses fewer resources than cotton production. Typically, especially in GOTs-certified linen, no pesticides or toxic chemicals are involved in linen production. Linens also require significantly less water than other fibres like cotton and they are naturally biodegradable and can be easily composted.

Weaving with Linen: What You Need to Know

Now that you know the basics of how linen yarns are produced and what makes them special it is time to explore what you need to know before you weaving with linen yarns to ensure you have a positive experience.

Characteristics of Linen Fabric

Many weavers and fibre artists are wary of working with linen because it has a reputation for being unforgiving. However, if you get to know this material's natural features, and familiarise yourself with specific techniques for weaving with linen, you will get the best results.

Photo of a person wearing linen fabric (Photo Credit: Unsplash/Chandra Oh)
Photo of a person wearing linen fabric (Photo Credit: Unsplash/Chandra Oh)

Advantages of Linen

  • Durable and long-lasting.
  • Stiff at first but it gets softer with age and use.
  • Absorbent and quick-drying.
  • Linen is one of the most sustainable and eco-friendly fibres available.
  • Line spun linen has a smooth and high sheen surface, which allows it to repel dirt and stains.
  • Linen doesn't shrink very easily.
  • Conducts heat away from the body.
  • Linen and linen-blend yarns are strong and durable with fantastic drape.

Disadvantages of Linen

  • Linen is more expensive than other types of yarn.
  • Lacks elasticity.
  • Linen tends to wrinkle more than other natural fibres.
  • Linen can be prone to damage if not handled carefully.

Types of Linen Yarns

Get to know the different types of linen yarns you can use for your weaving and knitting projects.

  • Line Linen - Featuring smoothness and shine, it is considered the highest quality linen. Line linen is spun from the longer, most lustrous fibres.
  • Tow Linen - Spun from short flax fibres left over from the hackling process. This type of linen is hairier, more rustic in appearance and features less sheen than line linen. Tow linen, however, has been found to be more absorbent and has a higher twist to keep the fibres together.
  • Wetspun Linen - Spun using water, wetspun linen has fewer hairy fibres sticking out and has more sheen. It is recommended to use for warp yarns.
  • Dryspun Linen- linen is spun without the use of water, it is a lot coarser than wetspun linen.

What makes a high-quality linen yarn?

Traditionally, the finest linens available have very consistent diameter threads with no slubs and small irregular lumps within the yarn. However, in more recent years, slubs have become a defining characteristic often associated with linen yarn. These irregularities, called slubs, don't compromise the integrity of the linen fabric, which means they are not really defects. In the case of many modern-day linen fabrics, particularly those used as decors in the home, slubs are considered to be part of linen's natural aesthetic appeal.

linen yarns available at Thread Collective Australia
Some of the linen yarns available at Thread Collective

How to Measure Linen Yarn

Linen is often measured as a NeL or Lea (Linen Count), which refers to the number of 300-yard skeins per pound of yarn.

Example of NeL Calculation

Yarn: 16/2 nel linen

Final yarn count: 16/2 = 8 NeL

Conversion: 1 NeL = 300 yards per pound

Calculation: 8 NeL * 300yards per pound

Total: =2400 yards per pound

Tips for Weaving with Linen

Weaving with linen yarn requires more care during the weaving process than other types of yarn. This is especially true if you are weaving with linen on a rigid heddle loom, as the heddle tends to apply more friction to linen warps.

Here are some helpful tips you need to know for weaving with linen.

  • Take care winding your warp and dressing your loom - Linen yarns lack elasticity and can be unforgiving if tension is uneven.
  • Choose a project with shorter warps - If you're using linen yarn for the first time, try doing a simple project with a shorter warp. Get a feel of how the yarn works before moving on to bigger projects.
  • Mist your warp - Doing this as you are weaving will help reduce breakages as linen is stronger when wet.
  • Watch your tension as you weave - When weaving with linen, try a tension that is not too tight. This is to prevent any breakage since linen is not elastic.
  • Advance your warp often - While linen has one of the highest tensile strengths of all fibres, it can abrade easily. If you are weaving linen on a rigid heddle loom, the motion of the reed against the fibres can produce weak spots and break the warp eventually. By advancing your warp often, every couple of inches, you will distribute any wearing along the fibres and have a smoother weaving experience.
  • Add more moisture - Linen responds to a firm wet finishing.

Wet Finishing Woven Linen Cloth

Wet finishing woven linen cloth turns it from a loose collection of threads into a united piece of fabric. Run your woven cloth through a washing machine on a delicate setting, or hand wash in lukewarm water.

You have the option to hang or tumble dry the finished fabric and press it with an iron to fully set the yarn. Wet-finishing woven linen cloth creates a beautifully soft fabric that feels comfortable against the skin.

A lesser-known finishing technique for linen fabric is called mangling. Mangling uses weight and sometimes moisture to smooth and flatten the yarn, creating a smooth, polished surface on the fabric. Mangling linen is generally done with a smooth glass or marble dome; however, I have a rounded marble rolling pin, which works well for me.

Another trick that always works to make linen fibres soften quicker is to place them on the seat of a hot car or use your body heat by placing them under your body while you sleep.

When to Use Linen Yarn

There are many projects you can create by weaving with linen. You can make a variety of garments, such as dresses, pants, tunics, pullovers, cardigans, camisoles, and shawls. It can also be used to make napkins, tote bags, bedding and so much more.

Photo of linen napkins in different colours (Photo Credit: Unsplash/Svitlana)
Photo of linen napkins in different colours (Photo Credit: Unsplash/Svitlana)

However, there are also projects in which you SHOULD NOT use 100% linen yarns. These include socks, fitted hats, mittens, or basically any kind of garment that requires stretch.

Recommended Linen Yarns

If you are ready to try weaving with linen, here are some high-quality linen and linen blend yarns you may want to consider, which can all be found at Thread Collective in a number of different styles, weights and colours.

Linen yarn is one of the most rewarding materials to work with. You’re not only weaving with high-quality fibre, but you’re also making a conscious choice to work with materials that are sustainable and environmentally friendly.

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