Linen is one of the oldest textiles made and used by humans. Made from flax, also known as linseed, linen is strong, durable, and dries quickly. If you have a linen tea towel in your kitchen, you know how great they can be. Linen also makes beautiful clothing, and linen textiles have been discovered in Egyptian tombs.
Flax, like hemp, is a multipurpose crop, and is also grown for nutritional purposes. Flaxseed offers a number of nutritional benefits and can also be turned into flaxseed oil.
Today, we equate flax and linen production with countries like Lithuania and France, but in fact, a U.S flax industry once flourished in Oregon. Here, the first commercial flax venture launching in 1867, and the crop was popular well into the 1900s. But as synthetic fibers hit the market, and soon overtook natural fibers, interest in locally produced linen waned and so did the crop.
Now, with their new venture Fibrevolution, Shannon Welsh and Angela Wartes-Kahl are on a mission to bring it back, building a sustainable, localized Oregon textile and fiber system along the way. Fibrevolution is in the final days of its crowdfunding campaign to bring linen production back to the Pacific Northwest.
But what does it take to revive an industry? What does it require to build a regional fiber system? We caught up with Fibrevolution to learn more.
Food and Fibers Project: Can you give us a little background on who you are and how you got into working with linen?
Fibrevolution: Shannon is descended from North Dakota flax (linseed) farmers. She is a designer, educator and the executive director of Pacific Northwest Fibershed. Shannon promotes all natural fibers, local production and local dyes through farmer videos and photography with partner John. Linen is the perfect fit for the Pacific Northwest and felt like a missing link in the material sourcing available to local apparel companies.Angela is an organic farmer, inspector and program manager for Oregon Tilth’s Global Organic Textile Program. She has been growing fiber flax for several years on the farm and wanted to produce fiber for the whole year – wool for the cooler months, linen for the warmer.
It’s so interesting to know that flax was a dominant crop in Oregon until the 1960s. What changed that? Why do you think it’s important to revive the industry?
Many factors contributed to the linen industry’s decline in Oregon. Primary ones being the rise of nylon, loss of military contracts that dominated the buyers market, lack of grading/classing system on par with Europe, and explicit laws against prison made goods (one of the largest schutching mills was housed at the Oregon State Penitentiary).
In thinking about sustainable fashion and sustainable agriculture, it feels that often we look to “new” solutions. But in a sense, you’re taking skills from the past and applying them in a modern way. When you think about creating a sustainable path forward, where do you think that balance is between old and new technology and why is it important?
We are luck to be entering a very historical industry, with long standing companies that have been producing linen for centuries in Europe. The industry as a whole started with the old techniques of dew rettting in the field, then developed water retting, then advanced to enzymatic retting. But they circled back to field retted because it had the least environmental impact and was the most economical of the three options.
We are also field retting our fiber flax. It requires more time but less infrastructure and ultimately will allow us to grow slowly and control production verses building a large enzymatic facility and being forced to grow hundreds of acres to provide a continual stream of raw material.
You have been working for the last three years on looking into what it would take to revitalize the Oregon flax industry. What are some of the interesting things that you have learned along the way?
We had so much infrastructure in the state and so little is left but there is interest in displaying our flax history in several historical societies and local museums. Most of the flax producers in Europe grow a winter and a spring crop to mitigate risk, climate change and possible crop failure. Oregon traditionally grew only a spring crop.
Fiber flax linen is still graded by hand across the world unlike cotton and wool that include testing to determine the quality along with hand classing. There are farmers who participated in the fiber flax trials at Oregon State University, 20 years ago, who are interested in growing flax again – we are not starting from zero – and that feels great.
What do you see as the intersection of food and fiber?
At the moment, with the growth of the organic food sector, it seems there are some very conscious eaters in our communities. We have a basic understanding of where our food comes from: the farms, the processors, what is in it and how safe it is. When you look at apparel, bedding, home furnishings, etc. hardly anyone knows where and how this every day items are made.
We are wearing the work of hundreds of people from every corner of the globe and we don’t, as a community, ask questions about the working conditions in the textile industry or make purchasing decisions based on how a material is manufactured, what the raw ingredients are, and so on.
The fiber movement can grow in the same direction as food with transparency in the supply chain. By building local fiber sources we are inviting transparency, community support, local employment, and all the other positive benefits derived from a circular economy business model.
Image: Fibrevolution/Micah Fischer