The word linen is often loosely associated with anything that refers to bedding. While some bedding does indeed contain linen blends, the fabric in its purest form is a luxurious and versatile option that has been around for millennia.
Linen is one of the oldest textiles in the world. Made from fibres of flax plants, remnants of this textile has been found all around the world. From pre-historic caves in Georgia dating 36 000 years ago and all the way back to its use in ancient Egypt.
Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun was particularly fond of this exquisite fabric. Buried with him in his tomb were a pair of linen gloves which would not be out of place behind the wheel of a luxury Italian car these days. Historians believe that King Tut used these linen gloves when he was still alive.
Curator Tarek El Awady said in an interview with the BBC:
“Most of the objects found in the tomb are ceremonial or designed to be used by the Pharaoh in the afterlife. These gloves, made out of linen, were probably worn by Tutankhamun during the wintertime, when he was living in Memphis [then capital of Ancient Egypt], or when he was riding his royal chariot.”
The use of linen in the mummification process is well-documented. Ancients might have been destitute of many of our modern-day comforts, but they had linen. That this textile is used and recognised as the luxurious fabric is telling of just how versatile it is.
In 2009, when a team of archaeologists uncovered what they believed to be the oldest evidence of linen being used as a textile for protective clothing, they unlocked a proverbial treasure trove.
“This was a critical invention for early humans. They might have used this fibre to create parts of clothing, ropes, or baskets — for items that were mainly used for domestic activities. We know that this is wild flax that grew in the vicinity of the cave and was exploited intensively or extensively by modern humans," explained archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef.
But it's unlikely that it was just the convenience of the proximity of flax plants that attracted ancient civilizations to weaving linen. Cultivating flax plants for linen is a tedious process and requires hours of dedication to the plant to ensure optimal quality.
This process is all part of the craftsmanship that linen is known for. A favoured fabric for many master tailors, because of its durability once it has been woven, linen isn’t just for comfortable shirts bought as souvenirs on a visit to hot countries.
The benefits of using linen – it is science
Aside from modernizing some production methods, moving to machinery rather than hand processing, linen hasn’t changed too much over the years. There’s a reason why we remain enchanted by this textile, despite the effort it takes to produce.
Linen has been scientifically proven to be cooler than cotton or silk. In an interview with Vogue, professor of fibre science and apparel design at Cornell University, Jintu Fan explained: “Linen is a comfortable material for summer because of its high moisture absorptivity and relative stiffness. The former property absorbs sweat and the latter property makes it detached from human skin, creating spaces between the human body and clothing for ventilative cooling.”
Linen is also stronger and more durable than cotton. So strong, that it was used as part of protective armour by the ancient Greeks. The linothorax, which directly translates to "linen chest", is the rather flimsy looking dress-like outfit you'll know very well from great Roman battles. The use of linen as protective armour fascinated one researcher so much that he wrote a whole book about reconstructing the linothorax worn by Alexander the Great.
The use of linen today
While the thought of linen clothing from summer holidays might be the first thing many of us have, linen is far more luxurious than that.
Many Michelin star restaurants will use linen for their tableware. Crafty home cooks know that few things will insulating dough for proving bread quite as well as luxury linen cloth and anyone with allergies know that the hypoallergenic benefits of pure linen are unmatched.
Eco-conscious consumers increasingly gravitate towards linen clothing in the summer months.
Despite its need for TLC, the flax plant does not need as much water as cotton and it can grow in poor quality soil. Additionally, almost no part of the flax plant goes to waste. Linseed oil and food or livestock are all by-products of manufacturing linen and the textile itself is entirely biodegradable.
The health properties of linen
Its moisture-wicking ability and fast-drying properties makes it less likely for linen textiles to foster a moisture-rich environment where bacteria can thrive.
Because the fabric is so breathable, it is also less likely to cause skin irritations as a result of moisture build-up throughout the day.
Using linen for facemasks
With all its beneficial properties, linen makes a great fabric for facemasks. The breathable fabric makes it more comfortable to wear and easier to breathe while wearing a linen facemask. It’s also less likely to irritate sensitive skin and cause breakouts due to its hypoallergenic qualities.
Linen facemask also dries faster when washed after use and it is ideal for use during the summer months because it’s a light and cool fabric. As the ancient Greeks discovered, there are some protective benefits to linen fabrics, too. It might seem like a contradiction – that a breathable fabric also acts as a filter – but the benefits of a linen facemask all come down to the craftsmanship of the tailor making the mask.
Modern-advances in textiles also means that you are not restricted to just plain colours for your linen facemask. As the world adjusts to the new normal, linen facemask are not just a comfortable and sustainable option, but offer the potential to add a luxurious touch to everyday fashion, too.