Linen - the textile woven from the fibers of the flax plant - has been produced for thousands of years and over a vast area from India to Ireland. Fragments of fiber and seeds found in archaeological remains of lakeside settlements in what is now Switzerland have been dated to 8000 BC and dyed flax fibers found in Dzudzuana in Georgia are thought to be prehistoric and to date from 30,000 BC.

Flax or Linum usitatissimum - an annual plant that needs a relatively cool climate and steady precipitation - is now grown commercially over a wide area including Canada, Russia, India and China and not only for fiber but for fodder and for the seeds that produce oil. High-quality flax for textiles is still grown in northern France and Belgium although commercial production in Sweden ceased in the middle of the 20th century.

The plants grow to just over a metre high but fibers, taken from the stem of the plant, vary in length. They are stronger than cotton fibers but not as flexible which is one of the reasons that when the fabric is crushed it tends to crease rather than spring back to shape. Fibers vary in coarseness ... the finest can be used for the finest handkerchiefs (and bank notes) and the coarsest are used for twine and rope.

The crop is either cut, rather like mowing hay, or is pulled up by the root, to get the maximum length of fiber, and the stems are then dried and the seeds removed by threshing. The flax is then retted - either left on the ground for up to two months when alternating rain, that softens the cut stems, and wind, that dries the crop, causes the fibers to separate from the straw - or the flax can be soaked in tanks or ponds which is faster but reduces the quality of the fibers. After retting, the straw can be broken into small bits, while the long fibers survive intact, and can be separated by “scutching” and “heckling”.

Once these fibers are spun and then woven, linen fabric is durable, strong (one of the few textiles that is stronger wet than dry) and is cool to the touch, tactile, resistant to moths and does not shrink or pill like wool. The natural colours of linen - from ivory through stone colours to tan and grey - are beautiful but the fabric can also be dyed or printed, much as cotton is, and the weave can be anything from the finest lawn to heavy-weight fabrics for suiting. 

Linen can also be woven with cotton or cashmere to create blended fabrics with new qualities and Marimekko have been experimenting with washing their fabrics to produce much softer linens, or do I mean less crisp linens, for some products.

There is an extremely good film on Vimeo that follows the process through from growing the flax to producing textiles and although it is quite long, for a web film, it is worth watching as it shows just why linen is so amazing.

The film shows yet again that good design needs obsession, commitment, passion and above all expertise ... and maybe needs a consumer who understands what they are buying and why.

linens from Klässbol

Manhattan tea towel in natural

Bjork and Manhattan in white and natural

Flätan napkin

The village of Klässbol in Sweden is in the district of Värmland, north of Lake Vänern, 370 Kilometres west of Stockholm and just 40 Kilometres from the border with Norway, in an area of lakes and forests with small red-painted houses set in gardens and trees. 

Hjalmar Johannsen was born in Klässbol in 1884 and began work at the local wool factory at the age of nine. As a young man he moved to Borås, to the south, near Gothenburg, to study at the weaving school there, but returned to Klassbol in 1918 to work as a weaving supervisor at a local wool factory. To supplement his income from the clearly failing woolen mill, he started weaving linen sheets and towels in his kitchen, from linen supplied by local farms. In 1921 he bought his first mechanical loom and in 1924 the business expanded into a nearby cottage. His family managed to continue the company after his death in 1928, at the young age of 44, and Klässbol, the company named after the village, is still owned and run by his descendants.

The linens produced at Klässbol are of the very highest quality. Since 1988 all Norwegian embassies have used Klässbol linens and in 1991, for the 90th Anniversary Dinner for the Nobel awards, Ingrid Dessau designed new linen for the Academy. Klässbol linens are also used by the Swedish Royal family and in 1993, to mark the 20th anniversary of the ascension of Carl XVI Gustaf, the Swedish parliament presented their king with 9 specially woven Klässbol tableclothes each 3 Metres long and with 200 napkins. Few of us, except perhaps one of the Oxbridge colleges or the City Guilds, would need table linen in that quantity but crisp, well-ironed napkins can make a meal at the table seem even more special.

As with Marimekko in Finland, Klässbol is proud of the team of designers who have worked for the company and it is interesting to read the pen portraits that are posted on the company web site where the designers explain a little about their work with linen. 

If you are on holiday in Sweden, it is possible to visit the Linen Weaving Mill at Damastvägen 5, in Klässbol.

printed linens from Marimekko

Korona by Jenni Tuominen - 100% linen displayed in the window at Nord

Marimekko are renowned for their printed cottons but every year, with each new collection, they produce a number of fabrics in pure linen or in a cotton/linen blend. 

Marimekko have occasionally, designed outfits in linen including the Paali dress by Marja Suna in 1994 and there was even a man’s suit, the PT 7 by Pekka Talvensaari that came out in 1986. 

The designs for their linen fabrics tend to be in softer, in more muted colours, and are often inspired by nature, particularly foliage. Heinä, a simple repeat design of grasses by Maija and Kristina Isola is a classic that is still in the collection. Korona by Jenni Tuominen, in contrast, is a soft geometric design in almost ice-cream colours that evokes smaller but as closely-packed designs of the late 1950s.

Heina by Maija and Kristina Isola

This Spring Marimekko introduced Kivitarha, a debut design by Teija Puranen, and Tunturipöllö, both new designs in 100% linen and for this Autumn Harmaja and Kuuskajaskari - one of the designs in the new Sääpäiväkirja Collection.

Tunturipöllö - Marimekko fabrics are identified on the selvedge with the name of the designer - here Sawako Ura - and the date of the design

new for the Autumn from Marimekko ...

For this Autumn, the new range of fabrics and tablewares from Marimekko is called the Sääpäiväkirja or Weather Diary Collection and was inspired by “observing seasonal weather patterns as well as by the exuberant glow of colours in autumnal gardens.”

Tableware, in the familiar Oiva range, has been included in the new season Sääpäiväkirja designs, with plates, mugs and cups in amazing watery blues or strong autumnal yellows and the pitcher has a band of design in sharp, deep greens and blacks with an image of “windblown trees, rustling reeds, glowing golden grasses, storm-soaked rocks, and misty archipelago mornings.”

New fabrics include Jussaro, 100% cotton with a design inspired by rolling storm clouds, and Kuuskajaskari, 100% linen with an amazing continuous pattern, that runs along the length of the fabric rather than across the width, with an impression of grasslands under a heavy sky.

My descriptions may sound like a bad travel advert but the pieces themselves are stunning and once again Marimekko has come up with something very new - a short break from their hallmark designs with strong abstract or geometric patterns - and, as always, by taking the patterns across a range of fabrics and tableware, they make it possible for you to give a table setting or a room a complete and co-ordinated make over with a very striking effect.