Originally published in Pom Pom Quarterly, Issue 9, Summer 2014
Anna dives into the summery and eco-friendly world of linen – the very fibre with which she made her Sceles mesh top.
Last issue we heard from Caitlin ffrench about her forays into growing and processing linen with the goal of making her wardrobe as self-sufficient as possible. Even if you don’t have the chutzpah to start up your own miniature linen farm and mill, linen is an excellent fibre to knit with. It’s anti- bacterial and wicking and it’s especially good in summer when it will keep you cool and airy, whether you are wearing it or knitting with it. If you get in a pickle on a desert island, it’s so tough and strong you can make excellent fishing nets or hitch together a nifty lean-to.
The linen industry in the UK is now mainly part of our bucolic past, but we don’t need to look far to import it. The stuff I am most interested in is grown between Caen and Amsterdam, a short hop across the Channel. Linen derives from flax, a blue or white flowered plant, which thrives in these moderate coastal environments. It is those same fields that produced the linen for the canvas on which artists from Bosch, through Rembrandt to Van Gogh (and beyond) would have painted on. In this soil and climate linen can grow without irrigation. It satisfyingly requires seven times less: pesticides and fertilisers than cotton and that’s before we have started factoring in air miles and such. The eco credentials run strong in this one.
It is useful to make the distinction between woven and knitted linen clothing. Whereas with woven linen you have to worry about ending (or even starting) the day looking like you crawled out of the bottom of the laundry basket and don’t know what an iron is, with knitted linen you only get the benefits of its beautiful drape. The wrinkly nature of linen comes from the fact that it has much less memory/elasticity than other fibres; less than cotton and a hell of a lot less than wool. It can’t bounce back in to shape; it just does what it’s told.
PROCESS AND GROWTH
Most natural fibres come from a soft puff (sheep, cotton, bunnies, llamas, silk, and so forth). Linen comes from the stalk of the plant; a stick rather than a puff. Bamboo and hemp might also spring to mind as fibres derived from a stick. Confusingly, bam boo fibre doesn’t actually come straight from the plant; it is turned in to a fibre through a process akin to making synthetics. To get linen from flax you have to whack it a bit. This is called scutching and later hackling, which sounds like a more violent form of heckling. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s back track. The linen plant grows in about a hundred days let’s call that three months and a long dirty weekend. It is then hoicked out of the ground, rather than cut off, to maximise the length of the staple. It is the length of the staple that dictates the quality of the fibre that can be produced from it. More pilling occurs the shorter the staple is. The same applies to all yarns, regardless of fibre content.
Now comes the weird bit. The outside of the fax has to be allowed to rot before it can be separated from the more useful inner fibres. The rotting of flax is called retting, not to be confused with rutting which is what young male deer do during mating season. Retting can happen in the field where the linen was harvested or in water.
Now the whacking bit happens, followed by carding and suddenly it is as if you are brushing long blond hair. Watching the mechanised process is disconcerting as it looks like Rapunzel’s epic tresses are being slowly drawn in to a mill only to come out as yarn.
And hey presto, its ready for knitting with! Unless it’s going to be blended: there are blends with everything from the slippiest rayon to the fuzziest mohair, though cotton is most prevalent. Each combination has different properties. You can count on Habu to mix it with steel (because being the second strongest natural fibre after silk apparently just isn’t enough). If you prefer to consume yarn one flora or fauna at a time, ideally place specific, as far as 100% European linen goes there are excellent choices. Euroflex always gets rave reviews, and Quince & Co have their Sparrow. Kalinka, a DK from Karin Oberg is spun in Sweden and comes in an array of breathtaking colours. If you like your yarn on the cone, try the linen from La Droguerie.
KNITTING WITH LINEN
Let’s roll through some steps that will make working with linen a lovely experience from beginning to end. If your linen is a bit tough, soak it in a solution of water and hair conditioner before knitting with it. The term flaxen hair comes from flax, so it seems fitting. Do make sure to tie your skein in MANY places. It doesn’t cling like wool does and will spring in to a big old knot given half the chance. Wind it slowly if using a swift and ball winder – if it flies off you’re in for hours of trouble. If you’re in a patient frame of mind,I highly recommend you hand wind your skein in to a ball. Winding a skein of madder-dyed lace weight from Artisan Yarns once entertained me on a train journey from London to Brussels. There was the synchronous thrill of travelling through linen country and it resulted in the most pleasant ball of linen I have ever knit from.
If your linen is a bit tough, soak it in a solution of water and hair conditioner before knitting with it. The term flaxen hair comes from flax, so it seems fitting. Do make sure to tie your skein in MANY places. It doesn’t cling like wool does and will spring in to a big old knot given half the chance. Wind it slowly if using a swift and ball winder – if it flies off you’re in for hours of trouble. If you’re in a patient frame of mind,I highly recommend you hand wind your skein in to a ball. Winding a skein of madder-dyed lace weight from Artisan Yarns once entertained me on a train journey from London to Brussels. There was the synchronous thrill of travelling through linen country and it resulted in the most pleasant ball of linen I have ever knit from.
Having wound your ball, start it from the outside rather than the inside, as it will be less likely to end up in a tangled mess. If you insist on starting from the centre pull, place it inside an odd sock or the cut off foot of a pair of stockings (a pair that has recently moved beyond being fashionably laddered perhaps) as this will keep it snugly contained. Whichever way you like to unwind, keep a close eye when nearing the end, so you don’t suffer from infuriating tangles. Play around with your needle choice. You’ll enjoy knitting more on metal or wood/bamboo depending on how humid it is (and how clammy your hands are). Wood or bamboo will have a little grip that might bug you in dry climates, but will be beneficial in steamy conditions – the slight texture will actually stop the yarn sticking as it would to metal, helping it move more easily.
It’s important to remember that, when working with linen its lack of stretch will put you utterly in control of tensioning the yarn. Be aware that there will be some drop – stitches will ease downwards as it is worn, making rows longer with little change in the stitch count, so it is good to get your tension sorted. Your knitting might also be a bit biased. Most linen yarns are stranded (laid together) rather than twisted, which means they have a stronger inclination to lean. Knitting the lace patterns that linen is often used for will tend to sort this out: the k2togs and ssks pull things this way AND that, rather than this way OR that. However, if you’re subbing linen for wool when working a circular knitted garment with lots of stockinette you might consider changing it to a seamed piece. Alternatively, Shibui Linen, which is chain spun rather than stranded or twisted should be a safe bet.
When starting another ball, ensure the join happens in an inconspicuous place as it can be a bit tricky to hide. In other words, not bang in the middle of your bosom. You can’t spit-splice it. Just sayin’. Secure it ASAP, as otherwise it will sneak around and throw off your tension. I would even suggest loosely knotting it until you have knitted further enough along to sew in the ends, making sure to double back. Don’t try to break off the remaining yarn by hand. You will not succeed. You will hurt yourself and you will regret it. The damage you do will be part way between carpet burn and a paper cut, Anyhow, don’t you have a small pair of golden scissors in the shape of a stork just for taking care of such matters?
Linen is the S&M yarn in the knitter’s closet. You can beat up on linen and it will love you for it. Throw it in the washing machine, even the drier and it will come back begging for more. All the things that would shock animal fibres in to a shuddering pile of soft, supple bliss. Save on water and electricity and don’t give it a private load in the washer. Being bashed against jeans and rubbed by frisky towels will give it the rough treatment it desires. One thing to watch out for though is that linen can shed a bit, so keep an eye on what you wash it with. You don’t want the rest of the load coming out looking like a gerbil crept in with the hot wash.
All this talk of easy laundering is not to say that blocking won’t make it shine, especially lace. Feel free to block the proverbial hell out of it. This will help it come in to its own. The aim here is to fill you with confidence rather than trepidation. An equivalent set of guidelines could be given for wool, but we are all far too familiar with wools peccadillos to need it. For all of the times linen is referred to as not as forgiving as wool, think about the way wool felts, shrinks, sticks to Velcro, makes you itchy and attracts moths – things you won’t have to worry about with linen. Plus its summer; time for an adventure!