Last week we were invited by our friends at I Love Linen to visit Belgium and discover the process that goes into growing, spinning and weaving flax into linen. France, Belgium and the Netherlands produce 80% of the world’s flax; the combination of climate and quality of the soil found in these regions are ideal growing conditions and the beautiful fields are a common sight in the western part of Flanders.
Flax is a robust crop as it relies solely on the seasonal sunshine and rain for it to grow. Flax farmers are experts at reading the weather patterns and judging the best time to sow the seeds. The crop takes around 100 days until it reaches around a meter in lenghth, it is at this point that it is ready to be harvested.
We visited farmer Bert Wolfcarius at his farm in Zulte, Belgium and saw how the flax he cultivates is processed into the raw fibre ready to be spun into various quality yarns. A lot of the flax fibre can be found in the root, so farmers have learnt to get the most out of their crop using special machinery; the plant is pulled up from the soil with its roots in-tact and then dopped down behind specialist combine harvester. The harvested flax is then left out in the fields to begin a process called ‘Retting’; the plant is exposed for about 6 weeks to the sun, rain and mud to loosen the fibres inside the stem. It is at this stage that it gains its signature natural colour.
Back at the farm the bales of flax arrive ready to be put through the second process, ‘scutching’. The plant goes through machines that beat and break the hard outer stem of the plant to reveal the fibres inside. The bales are rolled out onto a conveyer belt where the seed pods are removed to be re-used for the next farming season. Large rollers break down the woody stems (shrives) and help to remove the casing before they go through the final scutching machine that separates the shorter fibres (scutching tows) from the longer ones. Any excess is collected and used for insulation or animal bedding; nothing is wasted. By the end of the process the flax comes out in hair-like bunches that are checked manually for length and quality, which are then prepared to be sent on to the mill.
Bert’s farm has a great relationship with local mill, Libeco who are the 3rd largest linen producer in Europe. They are a great advocate for environmental sustainability; the entirety of their mill is ran on energy produced from their solar panels and wind turbines. Here, the flax is spun into yarn that will be woven into cloths and textiles used in a multitude of home furnishings, fashion garments and canvases. Libeco are strong believers in linen and its’ ecological benefits, they support the local farmers like Bert in adopting a natural and sustainable practice.
Linen has always been a big part of our summer collections here at Oliver Spencer. As our objectives shift towards a more sustainable way of producing and designing the use of linen, organic cottons and ecological wools, will play an even larger role in helping us achieve this goal. Linen’s ecological properties are not the only reason we work with it in a considerable amount of our garments; its texture and versatility make it very easy to work with and we feel the natural handle and interesting texture enhances the design of pieces in our collection. Known for being a breathable, lightweight fabric, linen is also extremely durable when woven tightly. It is for these reasons, along with its earth-friendly production process, that we will be making linen garments for many season to come.