Last month, we chatted about plain weave and even weave linen for hand embroidery, and that discussion sparked some interesting questions that flowed in via e-mail concerning linen in general.
One reader asked how to tell “good” linen for hand embroidery projects. Another asked about buying linen from online fabric outlets, and there were several questions about garment linen and other types of linen available on the market.
Today, I’d like to chat about these questions in a general way, and further down the road (if there’s interest!), we can discuss the particulars.
First things first: I don’t want to come across as a Linen Snob. I’ve used all kinds of linen for embroidery projects, depending on the project and its uses.
In my mind, the question of ground fabric boils down to this: what are you creating, and how is it going to be used?
I’m a whole-hearted advocate of using the best possible materials you can afford on your needlework, while keeping things realistic.
For example, if you’re creating what you consider your Magnum Opus – your great masterpiece – and you want it to withstand the test of time, you plan to put a lot of time into it, and you know that you’re going to be spending a fair amount of fundage on threads (perhaps you’re using silk or real metal threads or the like), then it only stands to reason that you should invest in the best possible ground fabric for the project. Why put all that time, all that expense, all that energy and focus into a project, only to work on inferior ground fabric and run into inevitable problems later because of the fabric’s inferiority?
On the other hand, if you’re creating a quick project for the fun of it, not necessarily something extravagant – say, a hand towel that you know will be used and laundered or a quick little hoop art project – you’re probably not going to put the same effort and expense into ensuring that the ground fabric is the same high quality that the fabric for your Magnum Opus is.
Does that make sense?
Of course, there are in-between projects, too. But I just want to settle the principle: your choice of ground fabric and the expense and effort you go to to procure the fabric you want for a project really depends on what kind of project you’re creating and its purpose.
Linen is an ever-suitable ground fabric for hand embroidery of all types, whether it’s a simple, fun project, a Magnum Opus, or anything in between.
But there are different grades of linen on the market, and it’s good to know something about origin and quality when deciding on the type of linen you want to use.
Recently (and I’m still working on this concept!), I procured various pieces of linen from online “wholesale” priced outlets. My plan was to test how good it was as a ground fabric for embroidery and whether it would work up well into useful items.
I was looking for linen that didn’t fall in the same range of expense as some of the better hand embroidery linens. I looked primarily for linen suitable for clothing, for totes or bags, and for toweling (hand towels, linen bath towels and the like).
For me, one of the Biggest Clues to the quality of a linen, without seeing the linen, is its place of origin. It’s often very difficult to find the country of origin of linens on fabric outlet-type websites, but you can always ask. They might or might not respond.
Linen from China is usually on the bottom rung of the ladder, when it comes to quality. I’m guessing this has to do with the quality of the linen crop, the length of the flax (I’m guessing it’s made from a shorter staple thread, or from the tow, or coarser, broken fibers of flax during processing).
Linens from Russia and from Eastern Europe are next up in quality. The Czech Republic is a major exporter of linen, and their linens range in quality. Some of them are quite suitable for hand embroidery, and especially for items that are to be used, like clothing, toweling, some sheeting and also for displayable embroidery.
The Ulster Linen Company – which, due to the name, you might think deals exclusively in Irish linen – distributes quite a large quantity of linen from the Czech Republic. In fact, the colored linens that I used for some of the letters in Stitch Sampler Alphabet are worked on these Ulster linens, which are not Irish, but in fact, Czech.
When you hear of “Irish linen” these days, keep in mind that there are very few working linen mills in Ireland now. When distributors refer to Irish linen, they could be talking about a look or “type” of linen, or they could be referring to the fact that they have offices in Ireland, rather than the origin of the linen. When it comes to looking for Irish linen, check the country of origin if you want the Real Deal!
The finest linens, by way of origin, hail from western Europe, due to the ideal growing conditions for flax. Some really gorgeous linens come out of Italy, and I’ve tried linen from Portugal, as well, that’s decent, good linen.
When it comes to available linen these days, though, if you want the cream of the crop, look for linens from Belgium and France.
In all the photos above, I’m showing off some linens that I bought from an online supplier of “wholesale” priced linen sold for clothing and household uses. I don’t want to mention sources, because I haven’t finished working with them, and I don’t know how they will perform, when all is said and done.
Strangely enough, I can’t get any information on the countries of origin. I’m still following up on that question. I’m suspecting that the linen comes from either Russia or Eastern Europe, though I suppose it could come from China. Some clues here and there lead me to think Russia or Eastern Europe, though. In any case, whenever the distributor mentions “European” on this particular site or its sister-site, it is always as “European quality linen,” not “European linen.” What’s the difference? The former can be translated as “similar in quality to European linen.”
If this is what they mean, they’ve missed the mark!
The linens are definitely not high quality like most European linens, especially compared to good linen from France and Belgium that we see in the needlework industry. They aren’t the type of linen I’d choose for the Magnum Opus. But I would use them for toweling, totes and bags, and more rustic-looking garments, if, in the end, they take hand embroidery well enough and they sew up well.
I laundered each piece of yardage separately, on delicate in the washing machine. I dried them to “almost dry” and then left them to dry the rest of the way on their own, smoothing them out a bit, hoping to relieve some of the wrinkle factor. (Didn’t really work! I’ll dampen them before I iron them.)
The lint, slub and selvage factors are all good signs that we’re not looking at linen made from superior fibers that are superiorly spun or superiorly woven.
Upon laundering, the selvage on all yardage fell completely apart, leaving raw edges and globs of strings twisted all over the place.
This has never happened with any of the finer linens I’ve used for hand embroidery. Ever!
The linens produced Mountains of Lint in the dryer, even though the most I washed and partially dried at one time was one yard of linen. The lint filter looked like a 2″-thick piece of memory foam, it was so densely packed. I had a hard time pulling the lint filter out to clean it, and I promise I clean my lint filter out every time I use the dryer. I could kick myself for not taking a photo – it was such a Chuckle Moment!
Again, this has never happened with any find needlework linens I’ve laundered the same way. They produce very little lint.
The fabric, which looked “ok” before laundering (see the blue in the photos above, which hasn’t been laundered yet), revealed lots of “flaws” afterwards (keep in mind, certain “flaws” are often desirable characteristics of some linen, depending on what you’re planning to do with it). I picked out short hairy staples of flax fibers from all over the surface. The slubs became more pronounced with laundering. There were also little hard bits of fiber – little scrubby twiggy bits – here and there.
Once again, this doesn’t happen with the Really Good Stuff!
In the photo directly above, you can see a creamy, sunny yellow (already laundered) next to the unlaundered blue. These are both sold as “heavy weight” linen – at over 7 oz a square yard – but I’d really term them more medium weight once they are washed. They seem significantly lighter upon laundering, due, I suppose, to the removal of sizing and the lint loss.
The linens shrink upon laundering, which is typical of even very good linen. There’s always some shrinkage with linen, because that’s the nature of the fabric.
These particular linens may or may not be suitable for what I have in mind.
I’ll iron them up and see what they do. My original plan was to construct a few different things from the pieces I bought, like a small tote, a book cover, a hand towel, and the like – all embroidered, of course! – to test whether or not this type of linen is worth buying. Sure, it’s significantly less expensive than linen sold exclusively for embroidery, but if it doesn’t perform well in the finishing, then…is it worth it?
Incidentally, once I washed the stuff, I wondered whether or not I should put too much time into embroidering the pieces I want to construct. I decided that if I go simple with the first test piece, I could test the embroidery aspect and then move on to something more complex.
So that’s my plan.
All linen is not created equal. The quality of the linen, its origin, and the use of your final product should all be considered when you embark on a linen search.
Depending on your intended use, you don’t always have to invest in more expensive linens.
But if you’re planning on creating something that you want to withstand the test of time, that you’re putting many hours into, and that you’re spending good money on for threads and so forth, it pays to get the Really Good Stuff!
If you’re ready to embark on your Magnum Opus and you’re looking for fine linen made for handwork from the ground up, I wholeheartedly recommend needlework linens from Access Commodities, which are available through local needlework shops and from online fine needlework shops. My favorite all-around white linen from them is called Alba Maxima.
And I’ll let you know how all this other stuff above works out, as I play with it!
Over to You!
Any linen experiences you’d like to share with other folks looking for answers? Any specific questions you might have about linen, that the Needle ‘n Thread community might be able to help you with? You’re most welcome to join in the discussion below!