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Thirsty Linen

Come summer and one of the coolest things to do is wear linen. Legend has it that the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, after her daily aromatic bath, would rest in a bed full of linen pillows filled with flaxseed, as it would not aggravate her delicate skin and body. So, what made Cleopatra choose linen over other fabrics?

Having anti-bacterial, anti-static and anti-bed sore properties, linen is believed to be the first natural fabric woven on earth. Linen comes from the Latin word for the plant, ‘linum’. It was the official uniform of the men who built the pyramids bearing the Egyptian summer’s scorching heat. With its moisture absorption capacity double than cotton, linen was called the ‘thirsty fabric’ that kept the Egyptians cool in summer and warm in winter. As far back as 3,000 years BC, flax (from which linen is made) was grown for fibre in Mesopotamia, Assyria and Egypt, where the finest linen cloths were spun. Egyptians believed that the whiter the fabric, the purer the garment. And they went to call it “woven moonlight.” Linen has also been discovered in Egyptian tombs, and wrapped around pharaohs’ bodies.

Well-known Indian designer Rohit Bal, who is a linen loyalist, says, “Linen is wonderful gift from nature. Its distinctive look and skin-friendliness sets linen apart from the other contemporary fabrics”. Popularity of linen is visible in Linen Club Fabrics’ more than hundred showrooms across India.

Pure linen has always been considered a sensible luxury. The French and Irish bed and bath linens were epitome of delicateness and exquisiteness. Writers waxed poetic about them and poets lovingly penned tributes to their sensual texture and style. Linen sheets were often described as “decadent” and “sinful” because they were exceptionally lush and beautiful. No wonder Agatha Christie in her novel At Bertman’s Hotel best describes the sheer luxury, elegance and coolness of linen when Miss Marple had a very enjoyable time purchasing expensive but delicious sheets – “Her mind was filled with pleasurable anticipation of linen sheets, linen pillow cases…she loved linen sheets with their texture and their coolness…”.

What makes linen so rare and exclusive is the fact that it is made out of baste fibre of the flax plant. The flax is a rare fibre and accounts for less than 0.2 % of the available fibres in the world. Flax being a rotative crop is cultivated once every 6-7 years in one field. Also, the process of flax and linen is very ecofriendly. It requires very little input in the way of pesticides or fertilizers. It does not produce any waste but only by-products such as paper pulp, linseed oil, etc..

Linen has indeed come a long way. From the colonial settlers who adopted linen for its light weight, absorbent and thermoregulatory properties to the Italian designers who have enriched the design value and have made linen fabrics the preferred choice of connoisseurs worldwide. Giorgio Armani prefers using linen because it is a noble product with unlimited possibilities while Nino Cerruti feels that linen takes care of the needs of today’s woman while offering comfort and freedom of movement. Valentino finds linen “supple as silk, as soft as cashmere and as fluid as muslin, while always being stylish.” When  Leonardo DiCaprio donned full linen in his The Great Gatsby, all concerns that a loose and crumpled shirt is not meant for masculinity were muffled.

During the middle Ages, linen was the  benchmark for both quality and status. “Because of the natural wax content of the plant, there is subdued lustre in the fabric woven with it” says Indian fashion designer Ritu Beri. 19th-century wedding contracts mentioned linen in descriptions of trousseaux. Quality linens were the ties that bound generations due to their durability and beauty that time only served to enhance. They were so revered in the Old World that one of the most important heirlooms a mother could give to her daughter on her wedding day were the linens that her mother had passed on to her on her own wedding day.

Inspired by the international designs and the popularity of linen, Indian fashion designers too have been experimenting a great deal with the fabric. Fashion designer Ashish Sahani endorses linen saying, “Being highly breathable, linen is highly valued in terms of comfort and wear-ability. Extreme temperatures in India makes linen most suited to the climate. Linen has always been associated with style and blends seamlessly with high fashion”. When top notch Indian designers such as Sabyasachi Mukherji, Manish Malhotra, and Ritu Beri, showcased their linenbased collections on the ramp, the fabric earned more respect but was also labeled as ‘elitist’ and ‘unaffordable’. Kochi-based designer Laxmi Menon who worked with a linen-production unit says, “Affordability is not an issue any more as more and more people are adding linen to their wardrobes for making a style statement”. Agreeing with her is Bangalore-based designer Sreenitha who loves working with linen. She says, “Linen is loved for its durability and it attains more sheen and airiness after every wash. It should be preferred over cotton, particularly during hot months. Combined with luxurious fabrics like satin, silk, and georgette, linen lends an exceptional look”

While most designers worldwide have prophesied linen and linen-blended fabrics as summer season’s preferred choices, not all designers are kind to linen’s flexibility and moistureabsorbing qualities. Mumbai-based designer Madhusree says, “Why linen did not catch on with Indians is the fact that unlike other fabrics, linen wrinkles very easily and crumpled dresses cannot bear the power of formal dressing”. Bangalore-based designer Siddhartha Upadhyaya disagrees and says that the beauty of linen lies in its unique quality to crinkle which gives it an exclusive look and a character. He cautions that the market, in the name of fashion, is full of linen’s hybrid varieties. Therefore, one has to be a discerning buyer to identify 100% classic linen. “Linen jackets and long-sleeved linen cotton shirts paired with linen cotton trousers are the season’s formal power clothing,” says Abdul Halder, a fashion designer who designs western as well as ethnic wear. Fashion gurus took a giant step forward when they experimented with designing bags, belts, wallets and ladies’ clutch purses and even shoes to give the linen a funky and novel look. Aptly said, if linen clothing is in, can linen accessories be far behind?