Nature crafting fashion
Cotton and Linen
The use of cotton dates back 7,000 years in both Central America and South-East Asia, where the warmth allows cotton plants to grow and eventually be cultivated.
In Europe, Greece and Spain were the only regions to cultivate cotton. By the 13th century, Barcelona was specialising in producing cotton canvas, while England began using cotton imported from the colonies for processing and weaving.
First a fine fabric reserved for the wealthy, the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 turned it into a much more popular commodity. The cotton gin, a machine that quickly and easily separates the cotton fibres from the cotton seeds, was a key component in the development of the textile and fashion industry. Cotton went from being more valued than silk and wool in the 16th and17th centuries to becoming an everyday ‘popular’ textile. The industrial revolution turned cotton into the cheapest mass-produced textile. By the early 20th century, cotton became the leading fibre worldwide - and remains so today - used both in high fashion and in everyday, high-street designs.
Processing cotton includes many stages: picking mature cotton balls - a tough activity that in the past was often carried out by hand by enslaved people; ginning to clean and grading to separate fibres according to length; carding to align fibres, combing and finally drawing fibres into a strand that is then spun into finished yarn. Additional phases can be singing to burn loose particles, tentering to finesse the grain even further, and bleaching, dyeing and printing.
The world's oldest woven garment is the Tarkhan Dress, found in an Egyptian tomb in 1913 and dated at over 5,000 years old. It is made of linen, and its survival proves the resistance of a material that is one of the most remarkable gifts nature offers to us human beings.
Because of the time the plant takes to grow and the skill required to weave it, linen was first reserved for the wealthy classes in Egypt, where flax (the plant used to make linen) could grow thanks to the climate. Interestingly, in Ancient Greece, linen was layered and used instead of metal to create armour. During the Middle Ages, linen came to be synonymous with underwear.
Thanks to their cool and moist climate, European locations such as Ireland and Flanders turned out to be the best places to cultivate flax, with entire towns being involved in the linen business. Flax is harvested by pulling up the entire plant or cutting stalks close to the root. After the plants are dried, the seeds are removed and, through a process called retting, involving natural solvents, the fibres are separated from the stalk.
After retting comes scutching to remove the hard and woody parts of the stalk and separate different fibres as tow, linseeds and shives. The fibres are combed and heckled to separate the long from the short ones, and then spun into yarns to be either knitted or woven.
During World War Two, linen was also used to make ropes and other army equipment. Regions in Southern Ireland were growing flax, farmed by women conscripted into the Women's Land Army.
A great characteristic that makes linen a preferred material for environmentally conscious designers and brands is its low impact on the environment, since flax requires no irrigation or chemical treatments, is biodegradable and every part of the plant is used.