When it comes to choosing fabrics for a home, especially in warmer climate zones, my first thought is linen. Because it comes in different weights and weaves, it can be used in a variety of applications from upholstery and slipcovers to bedding, pillows, and draperies. But what is it, exactly?
Linen is a fiber retted from the flax plant and a cousin to jute, ramie, hemp, bark cloth, sisal, coir, sea grass, raffia, and rattan. The grandparents on this family tree are the “bast” fibers that come from woody stems and plant leaves. Linen is one of the oldest textiles dating thousands of years with dyed remnants found in prehistoric Eurasian caves.
Because of its inherent characteristics, linen can be problematic for some peoples’ liking. The chief complaint comes from its lack of resilience, which results in wrinkling. And, although exquisite, draperies made with 100 percent sheer linen can become limp or brittle depending on the level of humidity in the air.
Linen blended with other fibers solves this problem. Another solution is “tow linen,” a dimensionally stable, sun-rot resistant, firm and pleasantly slubby fabric. “Line linen” is suitable for upholstery because of its ultra-long fiber (10–30 inches), durability, smooth hand, and lint-free characteristics.
Ramie is thought to be the fabled linen of the Bible and the fabric Egyptians used to wrap mummies. It was also used as ancient currency. It is one of the thinnest of natural fibers and, thus, extremely susceptible to abrasion. For this reason, while good for draperies, it is not for upholstery.
Bark cloth is a nubby material made from the soaked and beaten inner bark of tropical trees. You may not know it by its name but have probably seen it made into vintage Hawaiian clothing or table linens.
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Because linen is a pricey textile, numerous attempts have been made to substitute it with bleached hemp. But these efforts have been unsuccessful due to hemp’s stiffness and weight. The Italians combined hemp with cotton and silk to weave their famous brocades.
Next to linen, jute is commercially the most used bast fiber. Lower grades are used to make gunny sacks while better grades are woven into burlap. Ramie is best left for carpet backing or wall coverings. If dyed, it has a tendency to lose color and return to the original tan.
Linen has several third-cousins-twice-removed that are used to make rugs such as sisal, coir, and sea grass. Sisal is a hardy, thick, ropey fiber that dyes brilliantly but often fades. Coir comes from coconut fibers and is similar to sisal and jute but is coarser. It’s extremely durable, resistant to sunlight and humidity of all kinds. Because of this and its prickly texture, it is used to make exterior doormats. Sea grass rugs are popular, versatile, easy to maintain, great for pets, and smoother on one’s feet than sisal. Japanese “Tatami” mats are also on the family tree. They are made by weaving palm fibers with raffia.
Rattan is another distant cousin. Its solid core makes it sturdy enough to make furniture frames. It’s often confused with bamboo, which is a grass with a weak and brittle hollow core. Cane is created by peeling off the skin of rattan and wrapping it over solid hardwood poles used in furniture. Wicker is not a plant but a process. Wicker takes thin strips from a rattan vine, which are then woven together when pliable.
This family of bast fibers produce a wide variety of textiles and wares that can add interest, texture, and a sense of nature to your home.