Cultivating linen: from sowing to sewing
For centuries, linen has been a part of Lithuanian tradition. From cultivating and processing flax to turning it into home textile and clothing – linen was deeply rooted in the life of Lithuanians. Tablecloths, bedding, and other home linen pieces were used daily, and besides that, linen also played a special role in ritual events like marriage, baptism, or funeral. Throughout the years, Lithuanians learned much about linen, and although very little linen is grown in Lithuania now, it is still greatly appreciated and loved all over the country.
Linen cultivating and processing naturally changed through the years, but it is still an intricate and beautiful process. Let us walk you through this journey, covering each step from sowing to sewing.
At the very beginning of the spring, together with waking nature, the farmers start to prepare the soil. The weather temperature is carefully observed as the frost might be devastating to the young seedlings. Once the preparation is done, farmers are sowing the flax, usually in the middle of March, only to wait about three months to see the blue blossoming fields.
FLOWERING AND MATURATION
Once the stems reach an approximate height of 1 meter between June and July, it is time to bloom. A wonderful sight of blue, wavy flax field lasts only a couple of days, after which the blue petals fall and the maturation process takes place. Little boxes with the seeds form at the top of stems which means the time for harvesting has come.
Flax is pulled instead of cutting, which allows keeping the full length of the fiber, hiding inside the stem. With the help of special pulling machines, flax is pulled and laid down in the field, forming swatches – long, green rows of stems. Instead of being picked up, it is left there to rest.
From August to September, a special process is taking place. Laying there in the fields, swatches of flax are affected by sun, rain, and microorganisms, which loosen up the fibers in stems. Swatches are turned halfway through the process to ensure the even retting.
This process depends highly on the weather and the will of nature. So an experienced judgment is required to determine the perfect time for collecting the swatches. A few days too early or too late, and the fibers either will be too difficult to extract or simply begin to rot.
After retting, the swatches are rolled into large and heavy bundles using special machines. As the flax has reached the perfect retting stage it can be left packed in bundles until it is time to extract the fibers.
Rolled bundles go to scutching machines, where flax is crushed by heavy rolls, thus releasing the fibers from inside the stems. This process separates the long fibers (scutched flax), short fibers (also called tow), and shives – crushed wooden particles of the stem. But almost nothing is lost. Shives are later used for animal bedding or making particleboards. Tow is used in papermaking. And scutched flax continues its journey to becoming a linen fabric.
Combing, also known as hackling, is done in a scutcher – a special machine with thousands of pins. Any leftover tow or particles are combed away and only the purest of fiber is left. Long, glossy ribbons of flax are then prepared for spinning.
Before spinning, many strands are combined together, mixing flax from different regions and years, to ensure the quality and consistency in color. This process may require combining up to 32 different batches! After that, strands of linen are stretched out.
The technique of spinning may vary depending on the purpose. Fine yarns used for clothing or home linen require wet spinning (immersing flax in the 60 Co degree water before spinning), while thicker yarns require dry spinning. Spun yarn is then wound on the big bobbins.
Before the weaving starts, the yarn is prepared by warping it on big metal beams. Then yarn threads go into the weaving machine and a beautiful, somewhat hypnotic process starts. Fabric is a result of multiple threads crisscrossing – warp yarns run in the direction of fabric’s length and weft yarns run crossway, in the direction of fabric’s width. Less commonly, linen yarn is knitted and used for t-shirts or sweatshirts. In general, both weaving and knitting techniques allow for a great variety of fabric textures.
Some final touches before the journey are finished. Although beautiful in its natural color, linen is perfectly suited for dying and other finishing techniques. Depending on the purpose, linen can be dyed with non-toxic dye, screen printed or digitally printed, and even take a metallic coating for a subtle glittering effect.
Finally, rolls of fabric are destined to turn into beautiful linen clothing, sustainable home linen, or serve other similar purposes.