Soft, cool to the touch, and comfortable to wear, linen is nature’s climate control fabric. It’s also one of the most versatile menswear materials on the planet, taking the discerning gentleman all the way from the beach to the boardroom. Here’s the fascinating story of linen, and tips on how to wear it…
What is linen?
Linen is cloth made from fibers of the flax plant, but the manufacturing process is far from simple. During harvest – the same machine cuts, threshes and winnows the wheat, resulting in pure grain. Where this process stops, flax processing really begins. Here’s what happens next:
- Retting – bacteria are introduced with the purpose of eating the pectin which holds the linen fibres to the stalks.
- Scutching – removes the woody part of the stem by rolling it between metal rollers
- Heckling – the fibers are combed to separate the short from the long
- Spinning – creates the yarn that goes into making your shirts and suits
Although flax is grown in the USA, linen came to America from Europe. Archeologists digging in Georgia in Eastern Europe have found fragments of flax-woven cloth dating back 36,000 years. The Egyptians wrapped their mummies in linen and ancient linen has been found in caves near the Dead Sea.
During the middle ages, the German linen trade spread to Flanders – modern day Belgium, and this area – the Lower Rhine, became the center of the world’s linen industry.
It was early European settlers who brought the fabric to America where it continued to be an important household product until well into the 19th century. In fact farmers would have grown flax and processed it into yarn and linen cloth to make much of the family’s clothing.
Today, centers of world linen production include Eastern Europe, and particularly Ukraine. China grows a lot of flax and the USA continues to produce high quality linen fabric.
What makes linen so special?
Linen has some remarkable qualities that put it a cut above most other fabrics. Here are the important properties that make it so comfortable, cooling and long lasting:
- Hygroscopic. Linen can absorb up to around 20% of its weight in moisture without feeling damp to the touch.
- Wicking. Linen fibers are excellent at wicking water away from the skin, helping to keep you dry when it’s hot outside.
- Strong. Linen is a stronger yarn than cotton and actually gets stronger the more often it’s washed. Though the fibers can break if repeatedly creased at the same point, it’s this strength that gives the fabric its long lifespan.
- Soft. Linen fibers are naturally smooth and get softer with wear. This fabric is also lint-free.
- Conductor. Have you ever noticed that linen always feels cool to the touch? That’s because linen, like metal, conducts heat, drawing it away from the body to help keep you cool.
- Thick. Linen thread is much thicker than cotton, resulting in a looser weave which aids with air circulation.
Five ways to wear linen
1: Linen suit
When most people think of linen clothing, it’s the linen suit that springs to mind. Effortlessly stylish, this design classic speaks of sophistication and old world charm. It’s a gentlemanly rather than an edgy outfit – wear your linen suit for summer graduation ceremonies, weddings and smart garden parties.
Choose shoes with character to go with your linen suit. Brown leather brogues go well with natural linen. Just add a plain cotton shirt, Panama hat and iconic sunglasses like Clubmasters, and you’re ready to go.
2: Linen blazer
Does the thought of naturally wrinkled linen leave you feeling just a little lacking in poise? A linen-cotton mix blazer could be the answer you’re looking for. Adding cotton yarn during the manufacturing process gives the fabric a little extra stiffness, helping to improve drape and reduce that linen-like tendency to crease.
Choosing separates over a suit gives you more scope for contrast. Choose summer blues, grays, and other pastel shades and pair with neutral summer-weight cotton chinos, loafers or boat shoes, plus a Panama hat and shades.
3: Linen pants
As a smart casual wardrobe solution for warm weather wear, linen-cotton pants make a great choice. Offering a touch of texture, wear them to your sports club, for alfresco dining and meeting friends. Heading on holiday? Linen pants are eminently comfortable wear for sightseeing and exploring.
Twin your linen pants with a cotton shirt or white t-shirt. Try suede crepe-sole desert boots in gray, tan or navy, and if the day turns chilly, reach for a cotton-cashmere sweater.
4: Linen shirt
A wonderful clothing item that keeps you cool, calm and collected on even the hottest of days, a linen shirt breathes, wicks, and conducts like no other natural fabric on earth. And it’s versatile too, meaning you can wear your shirt tucked or untucked, as the occasion allows.
For a smarter finish, pair a bright linen shirt with neutral light-weight cotton chinos, brown leather belt and boat shoes. For a more relaxed look, twin your linen shirt with cotton chino shorts, leather sandals, and a snazzy pair of Aviators.
5: Linen shorts
A pair of tailored linen shorts offers the ultimate in comfort for when you’re relaxing. Wear yours to the beach, in your backyard, for BBQs and for spending time with friends.
Wear your linen shorts with a printed cotton short sleeve shirt, or perhaps a polo. Choose from sandals or boat shoes for your feet, and go for a snazzy Ambassador hat. Sunglasses are, of course, de rigueur, and if you’re intending to spend time in the sun, do remember to apply sunscreen.
Linen really is a superbly versatile product with a rich pedigree and continuing relevance as a men’s fashion mainstay. Make sure your wardrobe contains all the linen you need to keep you comfortable and stylish all summer long.