Taking humble linen from rustic chic to a layer of luxury
It makes a really good tea towel, but you can also sprinkle its seeds on your breakfast cereal, or use its oil to revive your dull wooden furniture. Flax may be one of the oldest (and most useful) cultivated plants in history, but linen – the woven fabric made from the fibres within its stem – doesn’t stand still.
Manufacturers are still finding ways to reinvent the material, using weaving and finishing techniques that haven’t been seen before. But it’s timeless, too: good-quality plain linen never goes out of fashion, and occupies a special space in the heart of many interior designers.
“Linen is completely versatile, and we continue to develop different fabrics,” says Bernie de Le Cuona, whose textile company de Le Cuona is known for both quality and breadth of choice when it comes to linen. “We’ve just produced a simple-looking cloth called Origami; it’s made from a crepe linen yarn that is spun in Japan, which gives it a very papery effect. It’s just so pretty.
“But other linens are heavy and gutsy, more ‘industrial’, and then there’s the classic fabric that people associate with Irish linen, which is very elegant.”
De Le Cuona says that, when she started out 25 years ago, no one thought that linen was a fabric worth celebrating on its own. “It was always the type of fabric that you might find at Sanderson, [England’s oldest soft furnishing brand], with big flowers printed on it. I felt sure that I could turn it into something that could be appreciated for itself. I was lucky, because at the time it was just becoming accepted that you could wear crumpled linen, so it started with fashion and then it moved to interiors as well.”
The versatility of it is the result of the magical properties of flax. The tall plants, their wind-ruffled blue flowers a quintessential sight of early summer in the countryside, contain long, very strong fibres. It’s this strength that means the fabric can withstand all sorts of treatment that alters its look and feel, such as being pummelled by an industrial washing machine full of pumice stones to make it soft and supple, in a way that cotton couldn’t.
The longest fibres make the bestquality linen, smooth and flat, while the shorter ones create the slubby, raw-looking fabrics that are just as appealing for their pleasingly uneven feel. Linen is also stronger when wet than when dry, hence its aptitude as a material for tea towels.
“The best linen is grown, nurtured, processed and woven in one small area of Europe,” says Mark Butcher, the brand director of textile company Mark Alexander. France grows the best – that is, the tallest – plants thanks to its climate, but it’s Belgium that is known for its skill in weaving the material.
Linen’s nubbly surface and crumpled appearance offer two ways to add texture and visual interest to an interior design scheme within a fabric, which is one reason why interior designers love it. “I like textiles to have a ‘found’ or lived-in quality, and using linen is the perfect way to achieve that,” says Butcher.
He says that Mark Alexander’s aesthetic is for “textiles that look like they belong, which are an essential part of an understated interior that appears to have evolved”.
Linen takes dye beautifully, meaning that bright colours are possible, but intriguingly, many manufacturers stick to neutral shades and colours inspired by nature, seeing them as a good fit for the naturalness of the material itself. Mark Alexander’s latest linen collection, Loom, includes colours such as Carnelian, a brownish red inspired by the mineral of the same name, and Atlantic, a blue-grey. These aren’t “fashionable” colours as such but they all go together very well, creating schemes that are easy on the eye and have that lived-in look that Butcher mentions.
Crumpled, washed linen is also a good complement to a more relaxed, less tailored style of sofa. Furniture company Arlo & Jacob has just introduced a loosecovered corner model, Harriet, that looks casual covered in denimblue linen, while Barker and Stonehouse’s Pablo sofa and chair have a Princess and the Pea- style design of stacked cushions, where different colours of linen fabric can be selected for each layer.
As a fabric for sleeping with, linen is perfect, cool in summer and warm in winter; now that we’re seeking out a more informal, relaxed look for our homes, crumpled, no-need-toiron products in 100 per cent linen have really taken off.
It gets softer with every wash, and those strong flax fibres mean that it lasts, so it’s worth any extra investment above a cotton set. Colours such as blush pink or warm grey are the norm, as well as classic white. For something brighter, try online retailer Linen Me, which sells sets in zingy citrine yellow and hot pink, among others.
“Nothing beats the feeling of a fresh linen napkin on the table, or linen sheets on a summer’s night,” says Arianna Brissi, co-founder of online retailer Brissi. “Our stonewashed table linen collection has been extremely popular; customers often come back to get more once they have discovered how easy to care for it is.”
It may have natural, “honest” qualities, but linen can also work in more out-there decorative schemes. It can be a great foil for more opulent materials – Graham & Green sells jewel-coloured velvet cushions that are backed with natural linen, and irreverent gilded wall lamps in the shape of animal heads, topped by
Tache Toile fabric on sofa, £107 per metre (rubelli.com)
metre (jimthompson fabrics.com); wall lights with linen shade, below, £95 each (grahamand green.co.uk)
Grey linen duvet cover, above, from £138, (pigletinbed. com); Maison Brocante bench cushion, left, £80, (hand-picked bykate.com)