Part 4: Linen. Wearing a vegetable for ultimate breathability in hot climates.
Cool as a cucumber.
Jul 4th, 2020 | 4 min read

Introduction to linen

Linen is a life-saver for people living in warm climates. It is said to provide an environment between the skin and the fabric that is 3°- 4°C cooler than the environment. Linen fibres come from the stem of the flax plant, so you are literally wearing a vegetable. Linen is the material to wear hot climates due to its unmatched breathability and lightning-quick drying. It is 2-3 times stronger than cotton, stronger when wet, environmentally-friendly, and has a very rich history. A weakness of linen is how expensive it is to manufacture, making it significantly less popular than it would otherwise be. It wrinkles extremely easily and although it softens over time, it can sometimes be rough to the touch at first. Nonetheless, its strengths are desired enough that uses for linen in apparel have gone up from only 5% in the 1970s to over 70% today.

Brief history of linen

The first use of linen as a fibre goes back 30,000 years in a prehistoric cave, where linen fibres were braided to perform basic functions like tying up primitive packages (made from tree bark), building nets to catch more game, and other uses from ropes and string. At that time linen fibers were not woven to make clothing, since you know, clothing hadn't really been invited yet, other than wrapping yourself in the pelt of last night's dinner if you got cold. Later in history, linen was woven into a fabric and was commonly used throughout Ancient Egypt, and is what mummies were wrapped in. In 1923, a German city printed their money on linen, and to this day the United States prints their currency on a blend of linen (25%) and cotton (75%), where the linen is added for additional strength and crispness. 

How linen is commonly used

Most of us have experienced first-hand how difficult it can be to fall asleep in an overly warm environment. Because linen is cool to the touch and has excellent wicking features to wick moisture away from the skin, it has become so commonly used in bedsheets that they are often simply called "linens". Linen is also used to make shirts, pants, towels, tablecloths, aprons, bags, napkins, and chair covers. 

Highlights and Strengths

  • Extremely high breathability to keep you cool in warm environments
  • Extremely quick drying
  • High water retention to keep you dry and avoid chafing
  • Nice texture
  • Environmentally-friendly


  • The wrinkliest material on the market
  • Expensive
  • No elasticity 

Score Breakdown

Anti-Odour: 8/10. Linen is naturally anti-bacterial and mildew-resistant. Its resistance to fungus and bacteria is why it is common used in medicine. Expect it to fight against odour-causing bacteria.

Breathability: 10/10. Best on the market. Linen high air permeability and heat conductive properties make it a top choice in warm environments, and keeps it cool to the touch. Linen is meant to fit a little looser to allow better airflow over your body and to keep the material from clinging to the skin -- providing the body with room to breathe.

Durability: 9/10. Linen fibers are taken from the stem of the flax plant and are two to three times as strong as those of cotton. Linen is a very durable and strong fabric, with fibres that are resistant to damage from abrasion. It is also one of the few that are stronger wet than dry. Due to its low elasticity, the linen fibres eventually break if an item is folded and ironed at the same place repeatedly over time. Nonetheless, expect it to outlast your cotton shirts.

Stretchability: 0/10. Worst on the market. Linen has extremely poor elasticity as the fibre do not stretch, meaning it does not spring back to shape readily and wrinkles easily. 

Moisture-wicking: 10/10. Linen fabric will quickly remove perspiration from the skin, which makes it great for use in both bedsheets and summer clothing. 

Weight and Packability: 8/10. Though not ultra light, linen is generally thin and light. Linen towels make a great alternative to thick towels, matching the absorbency at much lighter bulk. 

Wrinkle-prevention: 0/10. Worst on the market. No question. Linen means wrinkles. This is linen's achilles heel. 

Softness: 5/10. While linen is smooth and sometimes soft, heavier linen can feel stiff and rough to the touch. However, linen does soften with repeated washing and use, allowing it to age well and soften over time, despite its initial crispness. 

Ease of care: 7/10. Linen is resistant to dirt and stains. Linen dries extremely quickly when hang dried, so skipping the dryer is not much of a hassle in this case, especially when usually worn in the summer. Always follow the instructions on the item, but expect moderate initial shrinking with the first wash. Preferably use cold water and do not over-dry if using a dryer. As always, be wary of using bleach for white linen as it will weaken the fibers. Bonus fact: linen is resistant to moths. 

Water Retention: 9/10. Linen can absorb 20% of its weight in moisture before feeling wet, which prevents you from feeling damp in hot and sweaty climates. It's a great fabric for avoiding feeling clammy. 

Drying Speed: 10/10. Hang linen and it is extremely quick to dry, rivalling the fastest drying synthetics. It took me experiencing it first-hand to believe it, but it really is true. 

(Bonus) Sustainability: 10/10. Though I have promised to keep sustainability as a future topic and focus purely on function for this series, I come across over and over again how sustainable linen is that I couldn't ignore it. The flax plant takes 5 times fewer fertilizers and pesticides than cotton to grow. Every part of the flax plant serves another purpose without waste -- for example, the seeds are pressed to make linseed oil. It requires no irrigation and is fully biodegradable (except for pure white linen, which has been heavily bleached). It requires low energy to produce and requires 5-20 times less water than cotton and synthetic fabrics. 

These are the properties of linen, a linen primer.

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Next up: Silk. 

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