Linen clothes bring to mind the hot, humid tropics and the need for something lightweight that helps perspiration evaporate quickly. Think of Katherine Hepburn in "The African Queen" or Meryl Streep in "Out of Africa." Linen clothes are breathable and soften and become more comfortable with every wearing.
How to Wash Linen Clothes
Linen clothes are made from a natural fiber manufactured from the stem of the flax plant. After the threads are woven into the fabric, linen is sturdy and durable, moth-, bacteria- and perspiration-resistant. Unlike cotton, linen is weaker when wet and prone to abrasion and should be washed with care.
Always check the manufacturer's label first, but most linen clothes can be washed. Some structured garments such as lined coats and jackets may need to be professionally dry cleaned due to the inner fabrics and linings that help them hold their shape.
Washable linen garments should be turned inside out before washing to prevent surface fibers from breaking. The clothes can be hand-washed or machine-washed on the gentle cycle using warm or cold water for washing and rinsing in cold water.
Table linens often require a little different treatment because of their close contact with foods that can stain. Taking care of your linen will help make sure it lasts as long as possible.
Stain Removal on Linen Clothes
Stains should be treated before washing following the recommendations for specific stains. One, word of caution: If the linen has been dyed, some colors such as khaki may not be completely stable, and stain removal products can change the color. Always test a stain removal product on an inside seam or hem before treating the stain. Spread a dab of the stain remover on the seam and then rub with a cotton swab. If color transfers to the swab, don't use the product! Test and use another product instead.
Linen fibers can be weakened by chlorine bleach. Undiluted bleach should never be applied directly to the fabric, even if it is white. Diluted bleach solutions can be used safely on linen or cellulosic fibers for stain removal and whitening. However, even dilute solutions will weaken fibers causing them to rip and wear out if used too often.
How to Dry and Iron Linen Clothes
Linen garments should be air-dried or tumbled on medium heat in the dryer and removed while still slightly damp to avoid set-in wrinkles. Hang clothes immediately and allow them to finish air-drying.
Some people choose to never iron linen clothes and embrace the slightly rumpled look of the unironed linen fabric.
If you choose to iron linen, it is easier to iron linen garments while they are slightly damp. Always be sure to use the correct iron temperature setting when pressing linen. Extremely high temperatures when ironing can scorch linen fibers. The scorching or yellowing occurs as the fibers begin to burn. Burned fibers cannot be revived.
History of Linen Garments
Many of the first clothes were made of linen fibers. Flax plants grow well throughout the Mediterranean and Central Asia. Early cloth makers discovered that if the flax plant is soaked in water for some time, the outer steam rots away and leaves the inner long, soft fibers underneath that can be woven into the fabric.
The finest fibers were used to create white fabric for tunics and cloths. Egyptian mummies were wrapped in this fine linen. Coarser fibers were woven into boat sails and fabric for grain sacks. When the Romans conquered Egypt, they began to dye the linen vivid colors. The Romans spread the use of linen throughout Europe and had factories built to keep up with their demand for linen for their armies.
It was during the 17th century that the beautiful Irish linen industry was established to avoid competition with England's wool fabrics. Early settlers to America brought flax seeds to plant in the New World so they could produce linen threads and fabrics. Linen was the predominate fabric until the mid-1800s when cotton production was thriving in the Southern states.
Flax is still grown throughout Europe, but there is no current commercial production of linen fabric in the United States. Most of our fabric is imported from other countries; with many considering Belgium linen as the highest quality.