Woven from the fibers of the flax plant, linen textiles have been in use for millennia. The use and sale of linen fabrics is attested in many Egyptian papyri, and Egyptian mummies were wrapped in linen; ancient Mesopotamians used linen to make fine garments; and the Greeks even produce a type of linen breastplate armor called a linothorax. Early human civilizations flourished in warm climates, and linen was used for everything from sailcloth to bags to garments. Although the weight and fineness of linen fabrics has been historically variable, we now usually associate linen with a loosely-woven “homespun” material. Contemporary linen is usually used as a lightweight textile with a plain weave, which is tellingly also called a “linen weave.”
Although the linen industry had its origins in Northern Africa and the Fertile Crescent, the fabric and the plant eventually made their way north. Today, most commercial linen is produced across Europe, and Ireland has been the metaphorical and physical capital of linen production for several centuries. Debate continues as to who introduced flax to Ireland – likely Phoenician traders – but the plant took to the climate and linen production became commonplace during the Middle Ages. Flax thrived in the Irish climate in particular, and the Emerald Isle has long been a source of quality linen, as well as wools. However, Irish wool manufacture was subject to a series of oppressive laws throughout the 17th century, aimed at preventing Ireland’s wool exports from competing with the wool coming from England, and it suffered further due to the advancement of the linen industry.
Throughout Victorian times, Belfast was the capital of European linen production, and contemporary Irish Linen is the best-known linen brand in the fashion industry. However, the flax used in Irish Linen is no longer (mostly) grown in Ireland, but is imported from elsewhere in the world for spinning and weaving – primarily from France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The branding of “Irish Linen” refers solely to the production of flax into fiber.
Linen is a characterful fabric. Flax fibers are stiffer and scratchier than cottons, and woven linen is also more prone to wrinkling. Any consumer should certainly take the feel of linen fabrics into consideration before a purchase, because while the fibers do often grow softer with wear and washing, linen shirts will largely retain an airy crispness that some people find scratchy and uncomfortable. However, this same crispness helps with air circulation and warm-weather comfort, and it means a linen shirt is less likely to stick to you when the temperature rises.
That said, heavy linen and linen blends are very much an option for fall and spring. Although autumn nights are cool, the direct sun means that wearing thick wools or flannels is often a poor idea. Heavy woven linen offers weight and warmth, as well as breathability. These fabrics tend to be harder to find, but if you can get your hands on them they’ll provide a welcome change from your usual digs.
In particular, a knit linen sweater or jacket can offer perfect transition-weather comfort. These tend to be knit more loosely than your standard cotton or wool knit, which I find very pleasant when the weather is capricious. A loose knit can go under an outer layer without causing you to overheat, and it can be worn alone over a shirt just as easily.
Finally, linen offers a wonderful counterpoint to the Super wools and fine cottons that still dominate the contemporary RTW tailoring market, particularly in America. Although the most common linen product (outside “linens,” or bedsheets and the like) remains the linen shirt, linen suits and separates have become an increasingly prevalent warm-weather choice thanks to growing awareness and interest in men’s tailoring, as well as the success of online made-to-order suits and accessible suiting brands such as SuitSupply that offer rotating, seasonal options.
Linen fabrics, especially wovens, do have a tendency to wrinkle. They are often seen as more casual fabrics than wool, particularly when not blended with wool or silk. The yarns tend to be slubbier and less matte than cotton or wool yarns, but even so, fine linen shirts are anything but slobbish. And while linen suits are inevitably wrinkly the effect is one of casual elegance rather than disregard, and have been the choice of well-dressed men the world over.