Technically the flax plant is a vegetable! Linen fabric is made from the cellulose fibers that grow inside of the stalks of the flax plant, or Linum usitatissimum, one of the oldest cultivated plants in human history.
Flax is an annual plant, which means it only lives for one growing season. It is ready to be harvested about hundred days after sowing. Unless the weather is particularly warm and dry, flax requires little watering or attention during this time. It grows to about three or four feet height, with glossy bluish-green leaves and pale blue flowers--though on rare occasions, the flowers bloom red.
Flax is cultivated around the world not only for its fine, strong fibers, but also for its seeds, which are rich in nutrients such as dietary fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Flax oil is also a popular drying oil amongst oil painters.
Types of Flax
To this date, no method of flax cultivation has been discovered that maximizes quality and yield of both seed and fibers. To obtain the highest quality flax fibers, one must harvest before the plant fully matures, which results in poorer-quality oil. Conversely, if harvest is undertaken after maturation to obtain the best oil, the fiber quality deteriorates. Thus, two distinct types of flax plants are cultivated:
▪ The linseed type is grown primarily to extract the seed’s highly nutritious oil. This type is fairly short and produces many secondary branches, which increases seed yield.
▪ The linen type tends to grow taller, more slender, and with less branches. It is cultivated in order to extract the very long fibers from inside the wooden stem of the plant, which are then spun and woven into linen fabric. The taller the flax plant, the longer the fiber.
Flax Growing Environments
Flax can grow in a variety of climates, but it flourishes in cool, damp environments. It cannot tolerate extreme heat, so the planting schedule of flax varies from country to country depending upon regional climatic conditions. So, for instance, in warmer regions flax is sown in the winter so that harvesting can be undertaken before the heat of early spring. Because it requires a lot of organic components, flax grows best in deep loams and alluvial soils such as the Nile River valley.
Flax is ready to be harvested for its fibers when the stem begins to turn yellow and the seeds turn brown. On some farms however, the plant is harvested prior to seed germination. This yields exceptionally fine fibers, but leaves the grower without any seeds for the next planting and subsequently dependent upon foreign imports.
The stems of the flax plant are preferably pulled up with the root system somewhat intact, rather than cut at the base. This maximizes the quality of the fiber in several ways. First, the valuable fibers run the length of the stalk all the way into the roots, so pulling up the plant by the root increases the length of the fiber produced. This practice also prevents the plant sap from leaking out of the cut stalk, a process which dries out the fibers and ultimately results in poorer-quality fabric.
Although the agricultural industry has made great strides in mechanized farming, machine harvesting of flax is still unable to preserve the root system during harvest. For this reason, despite the extremely laborious process of manual harvesting, the highest quality linens are still made from flax plants that were pulled out of the earth by hand. Fabric made from hand-harvested flax is finer, more supple, and more highly prized than fabric made from flax that is machine-harvested.
Where is the best quality linen made?
The quality of the linen fabric is greatly dependent upon the retting process. For example, as you already learned, over-retting produces a mushy, weak fiber, and under-retting makes the bits of shive difficult to remove such that the fibers can be damaged during scutching; factors entirely under the control of the retter. The secrets of flax processing have been passed down throughout cultures for thousands of years and the best linens tend to originate from the enclaves within Europe that have long traditions of flax cultivation:
▪ The best quality linen is retted in slow-moving natural water sources such as streams and rivers. In fact, the highest quality linen in the world is retted in Belgium in the River Lys, though to this day chemists have been unable to determine what makes the waters so conducive to the retting process. Harvested flax is sent to Belgium from France, Holland, and even as far away as South America to be retted in the magical waters of the River Lys, which is typically crowded for miles with weighted down flax bundles.
Flax, ecological by essence
Today's worldwide concern about the future of our planet is a unique and wonderful opportunity to promote flax, the natural fiber, which we have been weaving for more than 100 years.
A mindful use of resources and raw materials with a minimum impact on people, animals and plants, has always been given the highest priority at Van Maele Weavers
I am happy to announce that on July 16, 2015, “OJ Van Maele” successfully emerged from a long judicial procedure, recapitalized, reorganized, and renewed. This was made possible thanks to the help of an American investment group made up of design industry leaders who firmly believe, first and foremost, in the “OJ Van Maele” organization, in the value and importance of luxury weaving, and in the heritage of how we do it.
With their help and support, the new “Van Maele Weavers” is pleased to begin an era based on the same principals as those “OJ Van Maele,” started with in 1906, coupled with renewed financial strength, stability, innovation and creativity.
Van Maele Weavers remains a fully integrated producer of high-end fabrics for home-furnishing: upholstery, curtains, sheers, and wall-coverings, with world-wide exports. Linen represents the majority of the production, combined with natural or novelty yarns such as raffia, horsehair, and abaca, which give the collection a refined, sophisticated look. Timeless classic designs are woven on dobby looms and proposed in beautiful colors and finishes.
Quality has been a long-standing priority of the OJ Van Maele organization, and the new Van Maele Weavers will continue to provide the same full array of high-quality products and services. We will improve and expand upon the organization's current offering—weaving, dyeing and finishing—to provide a level of products and services unrivaled in the marketplace. If you have any questions regarding our products or services, please do not hesitate to contact us.
We want to thank all of you who were there for us during the dark times and want you to know that we deeply appreciate your past support and look forward to a bright future, prosperity, and our continued working relationship.
July 16, 2015