You’ve probably been hearing a lot about linen – it’s simultaneously breathable and durable. These claims are certainly accurate, but there are some caveats.
Let’s start with a bit of general history. Linen is derived from the fibers of the flax plant, originally grown and manufactured in Egypt. It was used extensively in the deserts of the region, as it limited sun exposure while still allowing the wearer to keep cool. Modernization has allowed this field to expand dramatically, with Biella of northern Italy becoming the global front-runner of linen production. To yield the highest quality product, some manufacturers step through dozens of processes, from combing the short fibers out of the yarn to dissolving clumps through the addition of bacteria. On the other hand, cheaper producers will skip these steps, and introduce machinery to expedite the process. This generates an inferior fiber, but for some, the difference in costs makes up for the substandard results.
Linen’s primary use has always lied with textiles, even in the modern day – only a small fraction of the world’s linen production goes towards apparel. Furthermore, it has only recently become affordable to lower classes, having previously been a luxury good. That’s not to say linen is cheap; far from it, even bargain-bin companies will price their linen clothing fairly high when compared to cotton or synthetics. This is because of the exponentially higher cost of production, and relatively limited quantity available for use. As a result, many consumers tend to opt for linen-blends (often containing cotton), which substantially lowers the price while simultaneously providing the great benefit of decreased wrinkling. This also diminishes the primary advantages of linen, however, so it’s somewhat of a middle ground.
In the modern day, linen has established itself as the ideal material for warm-weather suiting, competing only perhaps with tropical weight wool and silk-blends. It is also frequently used in beachwear, as its high level of absorbency will keep your body dry without feeling encumbered. This, when paired with linen’s unparalleled breathability, makes it a perfect fit for wet environments in the dead heat of summer. In recent years, it has made a fine entrance into mall brand shirting, offering an excellent alternative to cotton for men that wish to wear long sleeves in the warmer months. This keeps the sun off your skin, which is an otherwise major contributor to overheating.
Pants are a great use for linen, too – if you’re attending an event that rejects shorts, linen trousers can give you a similar effect. You might even occasionally see linen in the realm of footwear, such as composing the upper of an espadrille. Linen’s popularity has simply exploded, and can now be easily found in stores across the country; there’s no reason not to give it a shot.
Before jumping onto the linen train, you should possess a rudimentary understanding of how to wear it.
Firstly, linen has historically been worn very loose and baggy, as it optimizes the level of air circulation. As a result, many of the clothes you’ll come across won’t fit as slim as you might be used to. There’s nothing wrong with this – relaxed fits have been entering the mainstream for some time, so this coincides with current trends.
Even so, the clothes shouldn’t dwarf your body, just drape off of it. If your new clothes don’t fit quite right, perhaps consider taking it to a tailor; if you aren’t totally happy with a new piece, you probably won’t wear it.
One other thing to consider is that linen is often implemented with an extremely open weave, which is one reason why its garments are so incredibly breathable.
Of course, this comes with a downside – they are often fairly transparent, especially when wet. As such, white linen pants can be somewhat dangerous to wear, and special care should be taken to prevent undergarments from shining through.
Now, although linen does have a great number of benefits, you should certainly consider its potential downsides. Bar none, linen’s biggest issue is the intensive care required to keep it in good condition. It wrinkles incredibly easy, more aggressively than any other material. This is caused by a combination of the fibers themselves and the form in which they are woven.
Unless you resign yourself to ironing every day, you’ll find that the wrinkles have their own kind of beauty, relaxed and carefree, and many wearers. This leaves them relatively inappropriate for business wear, as few people will recognize the difference between unkempt cotton trousers and linen pants in their natural form. Furthermore, even though linen is incredibly strong, you have to be careful when tossing them in the dryer – there is a high potential for shrinkage, up to 15%! Not only this, but your garments will become stiff and crinkly, sometimes even permanently creased. The easiest solution is to hang-dry them and wash only on cold; it should only shrink 5% or less if treated properly.
As you wash your linen apparel, you’ll notice it begins to break in, becoming softer and establishing a nice sheen. If your clothes feel scratchy and uncomfortable, give them a chance to develop some wear. Even cheap linen will retain high levels of durability, and should become more supple over the course of the season.
Still, this material isn’t for everyone, either due to the prohibitive cost or the exhaustive care required for its preservation. I would personally recommend trying a linen-blend before moving off it entirely, as that could minimize most of the issues. Outside of that, there are numerous other materials you could try that have similar advantages.
Some natural alternatives include hemp, silk, and bamboo. Obviously, all of these materials are much less commonly seen, and are potentially just as expensive. Hemp clothing, pioneered by brands like Rawganique, is spun from the fibers of cannabis stalks. As a result, it is biodegradable and environmentally friendly, which could be important if that’s a quality you seek out. It breathes very well, but has relatively low elasticity, so it is often blended with cotton or elastane. Silk is made from the cocoons of silkworms, and is exceptionally smooth and shiny.
It has excellent temperature regulation properties, high tensile strength, and great absorbency, making it a direct competitor to linen. However, it is even more expensive, and tends to fade in direct sunlight. Finally, bamboo is a rarely-seen option that has properties similar to silk, but without the sheen and extreme price level.
Outside of natural materials, you can also look into semi-synthetics. This unique category blends synthetic manufacturing with natural resources, transforming ordinary substances like wood pulp into excellent fibers for clothing. One such textile is modal, which is made of reconstructed cellulose.
It features great absorbency and high breathability, and also resists pilling, general degradation, and even shrinkage. These characteristics make it an excellent alternative to cotton, but it’s not normally woven in a way to directly compete with linen. Another option is rayon, of which modal is technically a subset. It is much more shiny and slippery than modal, and as a result, is often used to imitate silk.
Obviously, none of these alternatives, natural or synthetic, can truly replicate the incredibly qualities linen has to offer. As long as you’re content with the upkeep and can afford to drop a bit of extra cash, you should consider springing for the real thing!