The biggest problem with buying fabric, online or in person, is understanding fabric names. Some names are very specific, while others encompass wide varieties of materials. Not understanding the difference between flax vs. linen or asking “wait, is flax the same as linen?” is very common. And in this article I’ll help you understand the difference.
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What is Flax?
Flax is a plant that is grown for two primary reasons: seeds and fiber. The seeds are sold as food or part of supplements, while the fibers are processed into yarn. This yarn comes in a wide variety of weights and is used to make fabric or sold directly to consumers.
Flax is currently one of the more sustainable fibers. As a natural plant fiber, flax is a renewable resource. Additionally, in many cases flax is fully compostable. Flax is more disease and weed resistant than cotton and also requires less water. This is partially because not as much flax is grown as cotton. The smaller scale of production naturally increases the sustainability. If production increases dramatically, it is likely that issues with pest management and resource usage will arise.
The type of fibers that flax produces are know as bast fibers. Other plants, including ramie hemp also produce bast fibers. These come from the long stalk of the plant. They’re usually much longer than seed fibers like cotton, but not quite as soft. Under a microscope they look a lot like bamboo stalks, with small nodes every so often.
Line vs Tow Fibers
The best fibers from the flax plant are the line fibers. These are the long, unbroken pieces that can be spun into the finest grades of yarn.
Tow fibers, in contrast, are shorter fibers that are produced as a byproduct of extracting the line fibers. Tow fibers also may be spun into yarn, but it is less fine and less strong.
What is Linen?
Linen is yarn or fabric made primarily using the longer, line fibers from the flax plant. Because of the nodes present in all baste fibers, it has a bit of a rustic, uneven appearance. However, the long length of the fibers give it a little sheen. Plain-woven linen is the most common variety found in retail stores.
Damask linen, which is woven with a reversible pattern, was traditionally used in home decor. A process of beating the linen called beetling give it an attractive luster. However, today imitations of this fabric are mostly made with rayon.
As the sustainability benefits of linen become more widely known, linen jersey knit is becoming more common. This fabric is thinner and less soft than cotton jersey, but works well in similar applications, like T-shirts.
Flax vs. Linen
So, while all linen is made from flax, not all cloth made from flax is linen. Lower grades of linen may have more of the shorter tow fibers included and will be less lustrous and strong.
Because linen isn’t considered a fiber, most clothing and fabric made from Linen will be labeled as flax. So, it isn’t really “flax vs. linen” so much as “linen is a type of fabric made with flax.”
Crafting With Linen
Linen yarns are widely available for knitting, weaving, and crochet projects. The yarns don’t have a lot of loft, so unless very dense projects are usually quite see through. This sort of yarn is more suitable for over pieces, like a summer cardigan or for accessories. Alternatively, knit or crochet pieces can be lined with a woven fabric to provide coverage.
Alternatively, you can use linen yarn to make home goods. One of my favorite projects is this coaster weaving kit.
Sewing With Linen
Linen can be a great fabric to make clothing from, but it’s vital to work with it, not against it. It’s stiff drape works best with patterns that demand a little stability. It generally doesn’t drape gently around the body.
Wrinkling can be a concern, but it can be reduced by flatlining with silk organza. This won’t add a lot of warmth or weight, but it will increase the stiffness somewhat. I’ve seen it work beautifully on structured, 1950s and early 1960s style summer dresses.
Most linen fabric tends to ravel easily, so be gentle when handling it. Try not to let pieces sit around too long once you’ve cut them out. You’ll also need to do a fairly secure seam finish. If you don’t want to use a serger, go with a machine zig zag or hand overcast. If making a jacket, this is the perfect fabric to do a Hong Kong seam finish on.
Sometimes flax is blended with other fibers. Cotton is the most common. Blending flax and cotton can improve the hand and drape of the fabric and reduce its tendency to wrinkle. Other fibers are usually blended with flax for similar reasons.
Do you have any other questions about flax vs. linen? Or any other fabric issues? Let me know in the comments or over on Instagram!