Linen—even the word feels cool, doesn’t it? Tens of thousands of years ago, craftspeople discovered the uses and merits of the flax plant and the precious fibers within its stem. In fact, linen textiles appear to be some of the oldest in the world, known to be used in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and beyond—flax fibers were even found in a cave in Eastern Europe (in what’s currently Georgia) that are about 30,000 years old! And after all those millennia, we still count linens and linen blends as essential members of our yarn baskets—especially when the weather turns warm.
WHAT IS LINEN?
Linen is a fiber collected from the bast—or inner bark, or skin, or phloem (another evocative word!)—that surrounds the stem of the flax plant. Flax is a tall (about three feet) slender-stemmed plant with pretty, pale blue flowers. Once the fiber is stripped from the stem, it's soft and flexible, with a lustrous golden color. The generous length of flax’s filament promises that the spun fiber will have an inherent strength—stronger than cotton, almost as strong as silk! And with an average micron count that hovers between 12 to 16 (remember, a lower number means a finer fiber diameter and softer touch), you know it’ll be soft!
Now, all of that already makes it a wonder fiber, but here’s where linen gets really cool—literally. Where animal fibers like wool and cashmere are naturally meant to keep you warm by retaining heat, it’s the nature of linen to allow heat to escape. It has higher heat conductivity than wool or silk, which means that heat passes through linen fabric quite quickly. Plus, linen fabric is nice and permeable—air flows through the fabric easily—and it dries more quickly than cotton. There’s a reason it’s such a reliable choice for warm weather wear. When it’s hot, it’s so nice to wear things that breathe!
Yarn crafters have perfected several methods of spinning linen into a yarn. You may see linen yarns described as wet spun, semi-wet spun, or dry spun. This usually depends on the length of the flax fiber that’s being used. A wet-spun process is usually for the finest and longest of fibers, resulting in a smooth, sleek yarn with a gently glossy finish. The semi-wet and dry spun processes are used for shorter fiber lengths. The ends of the tiny, flaxen fibers can escape the strand, giving the yarn a more homey, rustic texture. And then yarn makers can get really clever—with precisely engineered chainette constructions and dreamy combinations with other fibers!
Whether linen is solo or in concert with other fibers, it’s a star. It brings its own special something to any blend! To illustrate, we’ll compare Shibui Reed (a fingering-weight, 100% linen yarn, at center) to Rowan Creative Linen (a worsted-weight, 50% linen/50% cotton yarn, at left) and Woolfolk Stra (a DK-weight 50% linen/50% merino wool yarn, at right).
In Reed, linen fiber is crafted into a fine, chainette-style strand that’s pliable, sleek, and cool to the touch. The construction lets a lot of air into the strand, making it breathable and nearly weightless. In Creative Linen, the soft loft of cotton is added to the cool, dry hand of linen and spun into a dense, round strand. When blended together, linen and cotton play off each other brilliantly, creating a gently rustic texture, excellent stitch definition, and sturdy strength.
Finally, in Stra, we see linen blended with merino wool in another ingenious chainette-style strand for a yarn with a touch more fluff. Together, the plant fiber and animal fiber give you a nice stitch definition with a sense of woolly coziness, tempered by an airy breathability.
While sharing linen’s talents, we choose these yarns for different projects. Reed’s delicate, flowy, lace-weight nature is perfect for drapey summer tops and lightweight accessories, even when it’s held double. Creative Linen lends its hardiness to homey projects like washcloths and bags, and its gentle heft makes it a great choice for year ’round sweaters—especially for those who like alternatives to wool. And Stra’s woolly half brings more elastic bounce to the linen, giving you a winter sweater’s soft loft, with a bit more seasonal flexibility.
TIPS FOR MAKING WITH LINEN
Linen can be crisp and inelastic in-hand, which can feel unfamiliar to knitters and crocheters who are used to the stretch and bounce of wool. You may find that the lack of give can affect the tension of your fabric and strain your hands. Fresh from the skein, a linen yarn can feel a little stiff, which may wear on your fingers. As with any yarn that’s new to you, we recommend that you knit a swatch to learn how the yarn behaves and feels. And be sure to rest your hands often!
You may find that some 100% linen yarns and linen-and-silk blends can be slinky and a little slippery. In that case, we like to take our working strand from the outside of a center-pull ball. That way, the ball is less likely to collapse in on itself and become tangled.
HOW TO CARE FOR LINEN
Linen is one of those miraculous fibers that softens with each wear and wash, and yet maintains its innate strength. Even so, remember to read your yarn’s label for care instructions. They’ll always guide you towards best practices with the longevity of your piece in mind. Some 100% plant fiber yarns (100% linen or a blend of linen and cotton) can even go in the washer—the gentle cycle is always a safe option. Since we rarely need to worry about shrinkage or pilling—we may even use the dryer!
You may find that, due to linen’s inelasticity, it can wrinkle fairly easily. If you’d like to press your piece, we recommend that you do so while it’s still a little damp (and it never hurts to protect it with a press cloth). That will release the wrinkles and creases, without giving the fabric that iron shine. (Test this aftercare on your swatch first!) It’s also best to avoid hard creases with your hand-knit linen pieces—creasing the fabric in the same spot over and over again can make it brittle. When you’re tucking your linen piece away for the winter (or into a suitcase to take with you on a trip), you may want to fold it gently with tissue or another piece of fabric. Thankfully, you won’t have to worry about any little pests—moths aren’t attracted to plant fibers like they are to animal fibers!
Just as linen is ever present in our wardrobes and closets, it has an utterly secure place on the Churchmouse shelves and in our knitting baskets. Take a look below to see some of our favorite linen and linen blend yarns:
LINENS IN OUR MIX
A fingering-weight yarn comprised of one strand of cotton and one strand of linen—the cotton has a soft matte finish, while the linen has a subtle sheen. Together, they create a yarn with a sleek feel and gently complex appearance.
A gently complex blend of merino wool and linen, this sport-weight yarn has a homey, rustic charm. The slubby linen fiber retains a bit more of its natural color through Manos’ hand-dying process, leading to beautifully heathered shades with a subtle sheen.
At a light worsted-weight, this half-and-half blend of linen and cotton has the perfect heft and texture for comfy garments and homey projects like baskets, bags, and washcloths.
With a smooth, consistent chainette construction, this fingering-weight 100% linen yarn flows through your fingers and across your needles like a breeze. The clever construction makes it airy, pliable, sleek, and graceful.
This yarn hovers between a sport- and DK-weight gauge while combining the effortless drape of linen with the soft luster of silk and the springy strength of wool. With a tweedy look that we love, it’s an all-weather favorite.
In this half-linen, half-merino-wool yarn, an elegant chainette construction and a delicately rustic texture gives you cozy and airy at the same time.