In the hot and sticky summer air, as the stifling humidity muddles your senses and beads of sweat trickle down your back, the cool touch of linen fabric to the skin can provide a welcome relief. Linen—one of the most ancient textiles, so sumptuous in texture and quaint in simplicity, regal and refined—is the fabric of summer.
Relevant for as long as humans have worn clothes, linen remains one of the top natural fibers used in textile manufacturing today. It’s also deeply ingrained in our cultural experience, both religious and literary—it’s referred to numerous times in the Bible, and it recalls Rudyard Kipling’s India, Ernest Hemingway’s Cuba and a finely linen-suited Samuel Clemens smoking a cigar. Of course linen’s aesthetic appeal is trumped only by its practicality. Its cellular structure gives it the cooling powers and humidity-defying properties that make it a summertime staple.
Linen is a cellulose fiber—more specifically, a bast fiber—that’s cultivated from the inner bark of the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum), which has long, strong fibers in the stalk. These fibers are harvested and spun into linen yarn. While this process dates back as far as 34,000 B.C.E., the plant wasn’t tamed and cultivated until about 6,000 or 7,000 years ago. Ancient Egyptians took quite a liking to linen, and it became an integral part of their everyday lives. Regarded as a symbol of purity, they also used linen to prepare mummies for the afterlife. Today, linen is used in apparel, interiors and high-end paper, and has many other purposes, giving it a prominent place in religious and colonial history. Though production of linen has started to move to Eastern Europe and China, the best can still be had in Western Europe; Ireland is its premiere producer.
Practically speaking, linen’s a good conductor of heat and dries extremely quickly, which helps to cool the skin—making it a perfect combatant for humidity. It’s two to three times stronger than cotton and its long strands minimize pilling and lint. Resistant to dirt and stains, washing actually increases its strength and linen has minimal shrinkage from high heat. If viewed through a microscope, a linen cell’s structure would appear as a long, slightly bent stick with various nodes spaced throughout. It’s this spindly shape that gives linen its trademark luster and texture.
For all its benefits, linen suffers from poor elasticity, which means it has trouble returning to its original shape when bent or creased—resulting in those notorious wrinkles. Linen’s excessive wrinkling properties have dogged the fabric’s use and, at times, overshadowed its gifts. But perhaps it’s better to feel good than to look good. On the other hand, wrinkles have become a bona fide look, offering a lived-in appearance that signals a laid-back attitude—relaxed, not sloppy—and flaunting a nonchalance. As with almost everything, working with and not against the natural inclination of the fiber will yield the best results and keep you cool all summer long. Just think of linen as fashion’s air conditioning.