The Definitive Guide To Linen
When it comes to staying cool in summer heat, linen really can’t be topped. So, why has it developed a reputation as being a bit ‘past it’?
Most likely it’s a Victorian hang-up over creases, but as many Mediterranean dandies have proved, linen can make for a raffishly sophisticated look when you know its properties and how to get the best out of them.
What Is Linen?
Linen is a natural fibre made from the stalks of the flax plant Linum usitatissimum. There is evidence to suggest that a linen manufacturing industry was in operation in Egypt over 4,000 years ago. Knowledge of the processes involved in making linen was eventually carried into southern Europe via the Phoenicians, but it was Belfast in Northern Ireland that became the linen hub of the world, producing almost all of the fabric during the Victorian era.
Bed linen was coveted by the upper classes for its cool and soft feeling against the skin, becoming a mark of wealth and social standing. These days, textiles account for the majority of linen grown, with clothing forming only a very small percentage – which makes a well-sourced and cared for linen shirt all the more special an addition to your wardrobe.
Why Is Linen So Costly?
Much like cashmere, the price of linen is elevated due to the laborious processes involved in its manufacture. Add to that the fact that weather conditions can also affect the quality of harvests, and you have another factor which can bump this fabric’s price up further.
The best and longest fibres tend to be from flax that is hand-harvested, after which the seeds are removed. Bacteria are then introduced to the stalks to decompose the pectin that clumps up the fibres. This process, called ‘retting’, can take quite some time if done organically.
Then comes the ‘scutching’ process, which usually occurs between August and December. One scutching method involves two metal rollers crushing the stalks, thereby removing the unwanted woody parts. The remaining fibres are then ‘heckled’, which has nothing to do with shouting obscenities, but rather involves the combing away of short fibres, leaving only the longest and softest fibres for production.
The long fibres are slightly twisted and then processed using a ‘wet spinning’ technique in order to achieve a smoother and softer yarn. Some manufacturers have ‘cottonised’ production, using machinery to speed up the process, but this is known to yield a lower quality fibre.
Is There A Benchmark?
Linen yarns are measured in ‘lea’, which is the number of yards in a pound of linen divided by 300; so 1 lea will give 300 yards per pound. A little archaic, we know, but stay with us.
Measuring lea is useful when determining linen quality (much like the thread count in cotton or wool), but you will rarely see a textile’s lea stated on the label of a shirt, jacket or pair of trousers. To gauge quality, you’re probably best carrying out a simple touch test. As a marker, a fine linen handkerchief is between 40 and 50 lea. If it feels rough and stiff, it’s likely to have come from shorter flax fibres.
Provenance is also a good indicator of quality. The best linen-growing climates are considered to be Normandy in France and Flanders in Belgium, but again you’re probably not going to see this information plainly stated on a label. However, the very best linen weaving mills are almost exclusively in the Biella region of northern Italy – brands which use these mills are often eager to point the fact out, so it’s worth keeping your eyes peeled.
Linen Versus Cotton – The Benefits
Linen is highly breathable, much more so than cotton due to its comparatively lower thread counts. Take bed sheets for example: a fine Egyptian cotton bed sheet will start at about a 200 thread count, while a similar quality linen sheet will have a thread count of between 80 and 150.
Linen has a very high moisture absorbency rate, making it the ideal fabric for hot and humid climates. It’s also hypoallergenic, which means sweat is less likely to break down its fibres.
Combined with its lack of elasticity, this ability to quickly absorb and wick away moisture from the body accounts for the ease with which linen can crease.
3. Resilience & Longevity
While linen is 30 per cent stronger than cotton, its chief advantage is its longevity. Although a brand new cotton shirt will feel smoother and silkier to the touch, linen only really starts coming into its own after about three to five years of wear.
It tends to become softer and shinier with each wash too, whereas cotton does the opposite. Flax fibres don’t stretch a great deal and are resistant to damage from abrasion, which generally speaking is a good thing, although repeated folding and ironing can wear out collars.
How To Wear
While a ‘luxury’ fabric like cashmere has become entirely mainstream (with a huge number of poor quality yarns available on the market), linen is one of those polarising materials, as evidenced by the British actor Bill Nighy in an interview he gave The Telegraph in 2010:
“Never trust a man in linen. I can’t relax around a man in a linen suit. Men in unstructured suits are unsettling and the greatest offenders are those who risk linen. I can’t go to the south of France any more, because I can’t survive all that linen. Tuscany is obviously a no-go area in summer, too. If I ruled the world, all men wearing linen suits would be arrested for crimes against aesthetics.”
Yet swathes of discerning Italian and French men can pull off the slightly crumpled effect with aplomb. So what gives? First and foremost, linen is in a way an affront to our very British taste – our sartorial history simply deplores creases. They are anathema to suited and booted gentlemanly style.
To wear linen confidently, then, is to embrace its relaxed crumpledness. And the easiest way to do this is with a linen shirt or blazer, but perhaps not both at the same time. For example, a linen blazer worn with a crisp cotton shirt creates a smart contrast in textures, while a linen shirt worn with a wool blazer or suit is an excellent way to dress down formal attire.
Pure linen trousers can be tricky for no other reason than your crotch has its own atmospheric considerations in hot climes and given linen’s absorbency, you can sometimes find that trousers become misshapen and generally scruffy looking.
However, you’ll actually be hard pushed to find 100 per cent linen pieces these days. Brands are well aware of the general aversion to creasing and as such, tend to blend linen with either cotton or silk. The result is a beautifully lightweight fabric with great structure, breathability and that distinctly European insouciance.
Lookbook Inspiration: The Linen Blazer
Lookbook Inspiration: The Linen Suit
Lookbook Inspiration: The Linen Trousers
How To Choose Quality Linen
Given that new linen is quite stiff to the touch, discerning its quality before buying can be difficult. There aren’t really any hard and fast rules to identifying superior linen, so more often than not you simply have to trust the integrity of the brand you’re buying.
As a general rule, you can rest assured that linens woven in Italian mills will be of the highest quality, considering the Italian history and level of expertise in working with fine and delicate yarns.
One aesthetic consideration is ‘slubbing’. Slubs are tiny knots in the threads and while they are not generally viewed as a defect, the best linens will be completely free of them.
Where To Buy
Perhaps more than any other fabric, you truly get what you pay for with linen and linen-blends. The best harvests and the most expert milling practices will be reflected in the price, so don’t skimp.
We suggest you stick to labels who pride themselves on the provenance of their fabrics. Any of the Savile Row labels are an excellent starting point (for instance, Richard James has a fantastic collection of linen-blend blazers) but even the Row’s head tailors will concede that their Italian cousins have the edge when it comes to working with fine fabrics such as silk and linen. Therefore, it would be wise to explore the likes of Loro Piana, Boglioli, Canali, Berluti, Brioni and Brunello Cucinelli.
Given linen’s longevity and tendency to get better with age, it’s a prudent move to invest in quality linen, rather than penny-pinch. That said, there are a number of mid-priced brands producing affordable options that offer a good balance between quality and value. Suitsupply and J.Crew are two excellent examples – both source fabrics from renowned mills within Italy’s aforementioned Biella region.
- Suitsupply Grey Bodywarmer
- Suitsupply Havana Blue Check Linen Silk Wool
- Suitsupply Lazio Green Houndstooth Pure Linen
- J. Crew Ludlow Suit Jacket In Delave Italian Linen
- J. Crew Ludlow Suit Jacket In Delave Italian Linen
- J. Crew Ludlow Suit Jacket In Herringbone Italian Linen-silk
- Richard James Sand Slim-fit Unstructured Linen Suit Jacket
- Boglioli Dover Slim-fit Unstructured Linen And Silk-blend Blazer
- Gieves & Hawkes Blue Slim-fit Herringbone Linen Suit Jacket
- Corneliani Linen Slim-fit Shirt
- Corneliani Slim-fit Linen Twill Shirt
- Etro Linen Shirt
- Canali Linen Trousers
- Brunello Cucinelli Linen Trousers
- Pal Zileri Silk And Linen Trousers
High Street Options
- Banana Republic Tailored Blue Linen Blazer
- Next Check Delave Linen Tailored Fit Jacket
- Asos Slim Fit Suit In 100% Linen
- Reiss Foster B Melange Linen Blazer Grey
- Next Tailored Fit Delave Linen Suit
- Ted Baker Niteyes Herringbone Linen Blazer
- Banana Republic Heritage Slim Linen Pant
- Next Linen Tailored Trousers
- Reiss Leary T Linen Mix Tailored Trousers
- He By Mango Houndstooth Linen Blazer
- Uniqlo Men Linen Cotton Jacket
- Austin Reed Contemporary Fit Sand Linen Trousers
- Uniqlo Men Premium Linen Long Sleeve Shirt
- White Linen Tab Sleeve Shirt
- Blue Harbour New Pure Linen Easy To Iron Fine Striped Shirt
How To Care
Since linen has no lint and doesn’t pill like wool, it’s very simple to care for. Steer clear of dry cleaning unless a blazer is obviously tarnished – it’s just not necessary for a fabric that is so comfortable taking on moisture, and the harsh chemicals involved in dry cleaning won’t do it any favours either.
A lukewarm hand or machine wash is the best way to clean linen. Once done, simply hang dry. A quick iron when damp is perfectly acceptable if the garment is excessively creased, but with modern linen-blends this will rarely be the case.
Avoid over-ironing the crease of the collar as this can damage the fibres – with a linen shirt you want a nice roll rather than a sharp fold, anyway.
Linen, although often maligned for its naturally wrinkled look, is a peerless warm-weather fabric that is all too often overlooked. A pastel or neutral-tone linen-blend blazer is one of the most effortlessly refined summer pieces available to men and lends itself well to any occasion.
A linen shirt, when worn with tailored shorts or a pair of slim chinos, is another key piece that proffers a supremely confident continental look. Aim high on the quality stakes and your wardrobe will thank you for it.
Are you a linen devotee? Or are you yet to discover this fabric’s true benefits? Will you be investing in a linen piece as the weather warms up?
Comment below to let us know.