I’ve been asked about this a lot lately, so here’s basically the State of the Field. While I'm not a textile scientist by any means, I've bought a lot of linen from many different suppliers over the past couple years, and I have an inexhaustible store of Strong Opinions. So-- all you never wanted to know about linen!PART THE FIRST: GENERAL FAQ
Why buy linen?
It's strong, breathable, more tear-resistant than cotton, washes and wears well, layers well with wool, is a dream to sew, responds well to ironing, and was used in the medieval period.What should linen cost?
(Updated 2/27/14) Linen prices have, on average, gone up by a couple dollars a yard during the past couple years. You can generally expect to pay about $9/yard + shipping. For most people, that works out to $20-$30 for enough material to make a tunic.
If you aren’t picky about which colors you get and can wait for good sales, you can often pay less. If you absolutely need to match your unit’s colors, you’ll have fewer choices. Sorry.What should I look for re: quality?
High-quality linen should have few slubs, a smooth surface, and a high thread count per inch. If you can physically examine the linen in store or order a swatch, an individual thread pulled from the fabric should hold its shape and not drift apart easily. Threads should be of uniform size and thickness.What's the deal with linen fraying?
Linen, especially linen that is loosely-woven, will fray extensively. You must use a seam finish to protect its cut edges, or they will unravel with use and washing. Your tunic will go from 'has annoying stray threads' to 'must fight your way through spiderwebs to pull it on' to 'there is not enough fabric left at this seam to fix the gaping hole that developed.' Here is how to do many basic seam finishes.
Pinking is probably inadequate in the long run. Zigzagging or serging your cut edges is better. A completely enclosed seam finish, like French seams or flatfelling, is safest. All these terms are explained in the linked tutorial. Plan to double-fold all hems.
Fabrics that are lighter in weight and have a higher thread count are less prone to fraying.How should I prewash my linen?
Linen must be prewashed before it's made into garments. It will shrink slightly (generally around 10% on either side, sometimes more) in the process. Please account for this when figuring out how much to buy. New linen is also coated in sizing (a blend of chemicals that keep it smooth and shiny on the bolt) and may have excess dye that can transfer onto skin and other garments. It may smell weird. All of this is why you must prewash.
Before you put your fabric in the washing machine, apply a seam finish to cut edges
to minimize fraying. Wash in hot water and tumble dry on a hot but gentle setting. Do not wash new fabrics of different colors at the same time, as dyes may bleed and transfer. Remove immediately from both washer and dryer and spread to reduce wrinkling, paying special attention to selvedges. Iron smooth and fold gently or roll on a bolt. Store away from sunlight. Never store wrinkled linen, as these wrinkles can become nearly permanent
Anecdotally, I find that fabrics with a higher thread count will throw off less lint during the prewashing process. I have a theory that better-quality linen is made of longer individual fibers, which have fewer ends per yard to release lint. Do check your lint trap; certain medium weights generate a lot
of fuzz.What other thoughts do you want to share, Ilsa?
Glad you asked. To be brief:Learn to true your fabric.
The fabric store almost definitely cut your yardage off the bolt unevenly. This is bad, because it means that no matter how carefully you measure, any (for example) squares you try to cut out will have at least one slanted edge. This is because the cut edge does not line up with the fabric's grain. (What is grain?)
Before you can cut clean lines on your fabric, you'll need to true it. Here are some different methods you can use.
Most linens do not tear well, so you may want to consider pulling out individual threads to give yourself a cutting guide.Calm down about thread.
Polyester all-purpose thread is fine for linen, really. Don't buy the cheap, no-name thread from the bulk bins at JoAnn. Gutermann brand is better quality. If your stitches look bad, try using a new machine needle, since your old one might be dull. But really, that's about it.Most of your problems come from not ironing enough.
Is your fabric wrinkling? Having a hard time pinning up your hem? Need to mark the halfway point on something? Use your steam iron. Ease the fabric up with your iron. Crease the fabric with a quick press. And press your seams open,
the finished garment will look much nicer (see here for proof)
. Don't be afraid to use a high heat and lots of steam; linen can handle it. Press from the wrong side of the fabric.'Linen look' is not the same thing as 'linen.'
Fabric can call itself 'linen look' and be made out of 100% polyester. 'Linen look' only refers to a fabric's texture or surface print-- often a slightly rough, 'rustic' weave. (This is ironic, since the best linens have a smooth, regular texture!) Always confirm that the fabric you're looking at is 100% linen by checking the listing or (if you're in a fabric store) carefully reading the sticker on the end of the bolt.Use the finest marking tool you can.
This is really a general sewing tip, but imagine you're tracing your pattern onto your fabric using a fine mechanical pencil. Now imagine you're using a fat piece of sidewalk chalk. Imagine you cut both out. Which tracing do you think will be more accurate? Use a precise tracing tool and cut all your lines away
, or your seams will not match up. The further away it is from your body, the heavier your fabric should be.
This is pure opinion, but I really think that lightweight fabrics look best as next-to-skin garments, and that heavier-weight linens look better as outer layers. Apron dresses and surcoats made out of lightweight linen will be floaty or clingy, which looks weird. Such things want a bit of weight so they'll hang properly. Finish your seams.
I already said this, but I'm going to keep repeating it until you believe me. You do not want your linen garb to unravel. Finish your seams. Finish your seams. PART THE SECOND: WHERE TO BUY ONLINEWhere can I buy linen online?Fabrics-Store.com
Carries the most selection in terms of weight and color. They don’t really discount things past 10%, and their shipping rates tend to be a little high. The 5.3 oz is a good all-purpose weight, and the 7.1 is good for things that need to be a little sturdier (pants, etc). The 5.3 oz tends to look old, dull, and soft after several washes as the fibers break down. This can be a desirable trait if you want your new garb to look broken in, but I personally prefer other linens. Will send free swatches. Shipping rate variable. Accepts Paypal.Fabric Mart
Stock is much more erratic, since they’re a ‘jobber’ (buy up odd lots from garment manufacturers and sell them until they’re gone). In general, though, they tend to stock linens that are crisp, finely-woven, and light-medium weight at $9-$13/yard. Check back often; the linen category gets discounted by 30% off about once a month. Good customer service. No swatches. $8 flat rate shipping. Accepts Paypal.Fabric.com
Carries a medium-weight European linen
at $14.58/yd. I think this is the best-quality medium weight you can buy: heavy, decent thread count, doesn’t fuzz or get nappy in the wash, beautiful bright colors. Their generic medium weight linen
is a good value at $11.98. Be very careful when buying the ‘Kaufman’ linens; many are blended with cotton or rayon. Sign up for their sales mailing list and keep your eyes open. Good customer service. Swatches $1.75 + shipping. Free shipping on all orders over $35. Accepts Paypal.JoAnn.com
NEVER BUY FROM JOANN without a sale or a coupon. Preferably wait until there’s a sale and you have a ’20% off your total purchase’ coupon (check for them here
) and stack the discounts. $16.99/yard, but very often on sale for closer to $12/yard. A bit skimpy at only 53” wide, but decent quality of medium-light weight. Do not confuse with the cheaper linen-rayon blend
, which is more prone to tearing, less breathable, and has a different texture. No swatches. Shipping rate variable. Does not accept Paypal.Denver Fabrics/Fashion Fabrics Club
. Owned by the same company. Carries a variety of linen at about $9.45/yard, but often has sales. Examine thumbnails and descriptions carefully; it’s easy to accidentally order something that’s odd (narrow width; strange blends, etc). The bolts of ramie linen
are a good deal at $65.95 + shipping for 15 yards; good deal if you need to garb a unit. Have had troubles with their customer service in the past. Some swatches available for $2.50. Variable shipping based on order total.
Do not accept Paypal.Mood Fabrics
Trusted retailer of fashion fabrics. Variety of linens available for under $10/yard. Have not yet purchased from this retailer. Swatches available for $1.00. Shipping rates uncertain. Does not accept Paypal.Any feedback? Criticism? Other questions that should be added? Would be happy to hear them, so chuck 'em at me! Thanks!